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Preventing football injuries requires multifaceted approach

Football seems to have a reputation for causing a high incidence of injury. Due to the nature of the sport, it’s easy to understand why. But with a strict, thoughtful approach, teams can go a long way toward preventing football injuries.

Football is a collision sport that often involves hitting at a high rate of speed. It also involves cutting, pivoting, jumping and landing, which can put football players at risk for non-contact injuries. Due to the intense demands football puts on the body, it’s important to prepare athletes.

With football requiring a combination of high-impact contact (collision) and strenuous ground contact movements like cutting and jumping, the strength and conditioning coach has a challenging task when training football players. The most common injuries are to the knee, shoulders, ankles, spine/hip and head.

These injuries occur during both contact and non-contact related activity. Preventing football injuries can be done by using an integrative approach that incorporates sound speed, agility, strength and conditioning training protocols.

My philosophy is that performance training and injury prevention go hand-in-hand. In other words, many training protocols that enhance athletic performance also prevent injuries. The main priority in preparing athletes for football is teaching them how to move. Teaching proper movement is important in all aspects of the training process, whether it be strength training, speed and agility, or sport-specific drills. This is especially important in preventing non-contact related injuries.

Injury prevention

The non-contact injuries in football are due to improper movement patterns. When non-contact related injuries occur, it’s because the athlete put themselves in a poor biomechanical position that led to the injury. For instance, when a football player sets their feet in a bad position during change-of-direction or lands awkwardly with the knee buckling inward, this may lead to injury.

Ultimately, injury prevention in football comes down to proper recovery and implementation of a training program that appropriately stresses the body. Teaching foundational movement patterns should be a staple in all football training programs. Implementing protocols that focus on proper cutting, jumping, landing mechanics and lifting technique are excellent ways to enhance athletic performance and prevent injury.

Speed and agility

When teaching proper biomechanics for speed and agility, I like to implement training protocols that focus on linear speed and lateral/multidirectional agility. I define these techniques as linear posture, arm action and leg action (linear PAL) and lateral push to move, athletic base and low center of gravity (lateral PAL).

Linear PAL focuses on forward velocity when running and helps to increase the athlete’s linear acceleration and speed. Developing linear speed helps players run faster and can prevent running and deceleration related injuries, including stress fractures, muscle pulls/tears and ligament/tendon tears.

Our linear speed drills include:

  • Sled pushes/pulls
  • Resisted/assisted sprint drills
  • Wall strike cadence drills
  • Arm swing drills
  • Reaction drills
  • Rapid deceleration drills

Lateral PAL focuses on lateral/multidirectional movement. It’s important for football players to have quality lateral and change-of-direction (COD) movements, because lack of control in deceleration can increase risk for injury. This is where we see many knee and ACL injuries. Improving lateral movement and COD helps athletes improve kinesthetic awareness and puts them in healthy positions to prevent injuries during pivoting and cutting.

Our lateral movement and COD drills include:

  • Lateral sled pulls
  • Band resisted lateral shuffles
  • Cone drills
  • Slide board lateral movements
  • Ladder drills
  • Lateral/linear deceleration drills
  • Single leg lateral/linear plyometrics
  • Reactive chaos drills

Strength/power training

Strength training might be the most important aspect of developing football players. Strength training with free weights provides excellent benefits to performance and health. Free-weight and body-weight based resistance training adds an element that challenges the athlete to stabilize their body through multiplanar movement. It helps their bodies become more resilient and resistant to injury, and it strengthening muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones.

Another benefit of resistance training with free weights is the athletes can get much stronger lifting heavy loads, which improves their abilities to control and produce high amounts of force through greater ranges of motion. This has a direct carry over to football, because the collision aspect of the sport requires football athletes to absorb and resist high amounts of external forces.

When I build programs for football players, I break down the training movements into lower body push/pull, upper body push/pull, torso, hip and neck. This allows me to target all the muscle groups in the body, while helping to prevent common football related injuries such as concussions, knee, shoulder and spine ailments. Some of the exercises I include in the training program include:

  • Neck: Resisted/anti-flexion, extension, rotation, shrugs.
  • Torso/hip: Stability based torso training, hip extension/abduction/adduction, loaded carries.
  • Lower body push: Front/back squat, split squats, multiplane lunges.
  • Lower body pull: Glute/ham raises, leg curls, SL/DL RDLs, trap bar deadlifts.
  • Upper body push: Bench press, incline bench press, overhead press, jammer press.
  • Upper body pull: Pull-ups, rows, rotator cuff exercises.

Conditioning

As is the case with most sports, football is played in intervals. That’s why it’s important to condition football players with interval-based conditioning. This prepares players for the energy system demands of the sport.

A benefit of interval conditioning is that it can be done at high intensity and keeps the players fast. High-intensity interval training is superior for football conditioning, because it does not affect speed and power, can mimic work-to-rest ratios and helps minimize overtraining.

Some of our conditioning drills include shuttle and tempo runs, short- and long-distance sprints, barbell complexes, sleds, and battle ropes.

When designing training programs for football, it’s important to make sure that all exercises are done with adequate form and technique. If there is pain or movement flaws, it’s necessary to identify the underlying cause of these problems. In order to mitigate these issues, it’s important to incorporate functional movement screens (FMS) and proper stretching protocols.

Recovery

A long season combined with the collision nature of the sport can be overwhelming for an athlete’s body. The offseason and preseason are appropriate times for developing and building the athletes body. It’s important to maintain and constantly improve speed, strength and conditioning during the season. The coaching staff needs to schedule training sessions so that they don’t over-train the players while getting the most from their time.


Exercises for injury prevention in football

When using strength training as a tool for performance enhancement and injury prevention, it’s important for the coach to know the benefit of these training techniques. These are some examples of exercises that directly help prevent common football-related injuries.

  • Knee injuries: Squats, glute/ham raises, Romanian deadlifts, hip extensions, abductions, adductions, miniband walks and plyometrics.
  • Concussions: Neck exercises, shrugs and torso stability training.
  • Shoulder injuries: Pushups, pullups, rows, rotator cuff training and bench presses.
  • Spine/hip Injuries: Torso stability training, hip extensions, abductions, adductions, miniband walks and plyometrics.
  • Ankle injuries: Torso stability training, plyometrics and hip strengthening.

Incorporating power development in the training protocol is another major benefit to football players. Power training is important because it allows athletes to run faster and jumper higher, along with improving their ability to absorb force and minimize injury risk from collision. Power development improves triple extension of the ankle, knee and hip, which is the driving mechanism for all vertical and horizontal power.

Some of the power exercises I incorporate into the program include:

  • Olympic lifting: Cleans, snatch and jerks.
  • Plyometrics: Hurdle hops, box jumps, SL/DL jumps and bounding.
  • Medicine balls: Multiposition throws and catches.
  • Band-resisted jumps

Jeff Brodeur, CSCS, USAW Level 1, is a fitness specialist at The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention. Learn more at www.themichelicenter.com. 


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