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Peak Performance – How young footballers can avoid injury

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Football is the biggest participation sport in the world with the latest figures showing that there are around 300 million registered players across all levels of the game, of whom 40 million are female. In parks all over the UK every Saturday and Sunday the “weekend warriors” forget their normal jobs and become the stars of their local club or pub team. Unfortunately, on Monday morning, many of them hobble into work or school with injuries sustained on the pitch.
In any contact sport there will be injuries caused by collisions with other players, the ground or the woodwork. But other types of damage such as sprains, strains and tears to the soft tissues can be avoided. At the amateur level training is often seen as a chore - players want the glory but they don’t want to put in the hard preparation work. But at any level, by using the correct training methods and warming up properly before a match, players will be fitter and less prone to injury. This is something that needs to be taught from a young age.
Training Should Be Fun
Kids have a relatively short attention span so, when they start learning to play football, although they might quickly pick up the basics, they will lose interest if it’s all about teaching. That’s like being at school! But, like school, the training should be broken up by playtimes. Introducing fun games and challenges will keep their interest.
Children will run around and kick a ball for as long as they’re allowed and their fitness and stamina will build naturally. They should be encouraged to play other sports so they gradually develop different areas of their bodies. Concentrating on the same areas of exercise can actually hinder their growth. And, with a variety of games to play they are less likely to get bored and drop out of football. Some studies have shown that kids who have more all-round ability are less liable to suffer football injuries as they grow older.
If the idea that training is fun is instilled early, it is more probable that notion will be carried forward into adolescence and adulthood.
Youth Training
The clichés, “no pain, no gain” or “you can run through the pain” shouldn’t apply to youth football. If a young person complains of pain it should be ascertained whether it is something minor that can be “run off” or an injury that needs treatment and/or rest.
Young bones aren’t usually fully formed and grown until the mid to late teens. The cartilage in the joints is softer than in adults and is slow to repair when damaged. Introducing serious and frequent training too early can result in overuse injuries which can have long-lasting effects.
A common cause of foot pain in adolescents is Sever’s disease which affects the heel. It is usually the result of too much exercise, especially running or not using the right running technique. If a child complains of heel pain they need to stop the exercise and rest the foot. A physiotherapist will be able to detect abnormal movement and provide exercises to stabilise the foot movement. If Sever’s disease goes undetected and untreated there can be a permanent deformity of the bone.
There are a number of other injuries which are relatively minor for an adult but can affect the long-term development of young people. Training techniques, particularly with weights, need to be introduced gradually and developed as the player matures. There should also be sufficient recovery time allowed after matches and training sessions to lessen the risk of overuse damage.
Injury Prevention
One of the major factors in injury prevention is preparation. Warming up before a match or training session slowly raises the heart rate, stretches the muscles, ligaments and tendons and increases blood flow and oxygen to the muscles.
FIFA, in consultation with a group of medical experts, developed a warm up and injury prevention program called 11+ which is available todownload. The program is designed for footballers over the age of 14 and should be performed at least twice weekly to be wholly effective. It consists of three parts: Low speed running exercises with some stretching; exercises for strength, balance, agility and plyometrics; moderate to high speed running with direction changes.
In a study by the British Medical Journal it was shown that teams using the 11+ program reduced injuries in training by 37% and match injuries by 29% with a 50% reduction in serious injuries.
Training sessions should incorporate core training which strengthens the abdominal, back and pelvic muscles, building core stability. Working on the muscles that help with balance can improve posture, coordination, stability and agility. Plyometrics, or jump training, helps to strengthen muscles, ligaments and tendons in the legs and enables a player to jump more powerfully.
All of these factors work together to reduce the risk of injury. The player is less likely to fall, will be stronger in contact with other players and will land better after jumping.
A cooling down period after exercising is also beneficial. It lets the heart rate decrease gradually and gentle stretching will reduce the risk of cramp and stiffening in the muscles by reducing the build-up of lactic acid.
Playing by the Rules
Football is a tough game but the rules are there to protect players and make the game fair and entertaining. Players who make reckless challenges by going over the ball, using elbows or jumping badly can not only injure other players, but also themselves.
A tackle that breaks a player’s leg, for instance, doesn’t just rule them out of the sport for a long time, but can also affect their livelihood if they are unable to work.
If you sustain an injury which you believe is the result of recklessness or negligence, you could make a claim against the player, club or match official. You should seek advice from a solicitor who will advise you on the procedure for making a personal injury claim.
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