This article is part of a series by Jamie Henderson that will be coming to Youth Football Scotland on a monthly basis to help educate, provoke thought and encourage discussion with parents, coaches and youth footballers on sport science-related topics to aid youth football development.
In football, injuries are common and unavoidable at times due to the nature of the sport which can include both contact injuries (e.g. collisions) and non-contact injuries (e.g. sprains and muscle strains). However, due to the time away from sport participation required to recover from such injuries, preventing them should be a primary goal of youth football coaching staff with a main focus on preventing non-contact injuries to ensure long-term athletic development.
When it comes to preventing injuries, it is important to understand the most common types that youth footballers are likely to experience. In a recent study (1), it was found that the most common types of injury in elite youth football academies in the UK were overuse injuries, muscular strains and ligament strains. Locations of these injuries were most frequently reported around the knee and ankle. This study also broke down the mechanisms contributing to these injuries which included faulty movement patterns, fatigue, lack of proprioception (body positional awareness and coordination) and lack of muscular strength.
Faulty Movement Patterns
In most field-based sports, being able to move efficiently in a variety of planes/directions is key to effective on-field performance and staying fit throughout the season.
Steve Curnyn, Head of Academy Science and Medicine at Hibernian F.C. stated “A well thought out periodised strength plan using multi-planar, multi-joint and ground-based exercises will significantly increase training and game time in youth players.
"However, a good strength plan can’t be built without solid foundations of fundamental movements such as Squat, Hinge, Rotations, Push and Pulling. Once these basic movements have been learnt only then can you start loading up the players.”
Coaches should implement these basic movements into warm ups and players should perform the movements regularly at home/in the gym in their own time. It should be stressed that these exercises should be performed with bodyweight only until optimal technique is achieved – having a coach or specialist who knows the correct technique points for each exercise is important here.
When footballers become acutely fatigued during a match or during an intense training session, neuromuscular control is reduced which can lead to a greater risk of injury (2). For example, during the later stages of a match, tiredness can reduce movement quality during tasks such as changing direction and landing which can lead to a greater risk of injury during these tasks. Having greater levels of cardiovascular fitness and conditioning can help prevent this from occurring.
Furthermore, long-term overtraining and chronic fatigue can also contribute to a greater risk of overuse injury – more information on this can be found in last month’s article. Ensuring that levels of fatigue and tiredness are monitored as best as possible can prevent this fatigue. At clubs with smaller staff numbers, this can be difficult to monitor.
Despite this, having general discussions individually with players to see how they are feeling may be effective. Good indicators to look out for include muscle soreness, poor sleep habits, general fatigue and tiredness and stress from school and exams which can highlight whether or not training sessions should be reduced in intensity and/or duration.
Proprioception is the sensing of movement and positioning of body parts being used in a movement or physical task which forms the base for balance and general movement. Poor proprioception can lead to poor physical performance during tasks and an increased risk of injury. It has been shown that increased proprioception can play a role in reducing risk of injury (3).
Proprioception training can come in the form of balance-based tasks using only one leg such as static single-leg holds, lunges and single-leg passing/ball-based exercises.
These types of exercises can help to strengthen the muscles of the foot as well as the ankle stabilisers which will help to prevent injury in these areas.
Lower Limb Strength
Increased strength is considered to be one of the most important injury prevention strategies in youth footballers. As previously stated, strength cannot be developed safely until the essential movement patterns of the body have been sufficiently adopted from frequent repetition.
The most commonly injured muscle group in youth footballers is the hamstrings (1). Strengthening this muscle group can reduce the likelihood of injury and can come from training the hinge movement as shown above, but they can also be strengthened at home using the following simple and easy-to-learn exercises:
Nordics (With a partner)
Glute Bridge (On couch or floor)
The recurring theme when it comes to preventing injury is the development of strength. Regular and varied movement should initially be performed until correct technique is adhered to, then properly programmed strength training and proprioception exercises focussing on strengthening the muscles around the hip, knee and ankle should be performed. Management of fatigue is also important, and at lower playing levels this can simply come from an informal discussion with players to see how they feel.
- Read PJ, Jimenez P, Oliver JL, Lloyd RS. Injury prevention in male youth soccer: Current practices and perceptions of practitioners working at elite English academies. Journal of sports sciences. 2018 Jun 18;36(12):1423-31.
- Oliver JL, Croix MB, Lloyd RS, Williams CA. Altered neuromuscular control of leg stiffness following soccer-specific exercise. European journal of applied physiology. 2014 Nov 1;114(11):2241-9.
- Emery CA, Meeuwisse WH. The effectiveness of a neuromuscular prevention strategy to reduce injuries in youth soccer: a cluster-randomised controlled trial. British journal of sports medicine. 2010 Jun 1;44(8):555-62.
About the author:
Owner of Henderson Health and Fitness
BSc Sport and Exercise Science
MSc Sport Performance Enhancement (in studying)
Strength and Conditioning Intern at Hibernian F.C.
Has previously worked as a Strength and Conditioning Coach at Leith Athletic F.C. and Selkirk F.C.