It seems every year during training camp multiple players get injured and fans end up asking themselves the same questions over and over again. Did the players not report to camp in peak condition? Are the practices too physical? Are their bodies simply not tough enough to handle the rigors and physicality of NFL competition?
In a game as physical and grueling as professional football, there are always going to be injuries. That's just the nature of the sport. There's not much someone can do to prevent certain injuries from occurring (i.e. taking a helmet to the knee and tearing an ACL). However, there are definitely factors that make some athletes more susceptible to non-contact injuries than others. This article will highlight these aspects and also detail one of the tools that professional sports teams use to assess injury risk.
WHAT MAKES AN ATHLETE PRONE TO INJURY?
Most people believe that getting bigger, faster, and stronger is the key formula for improving athletic performance and preventing injury. However, while these traits are certainly important, that statement is not necessarily true.
Leaders in the sports medicine field claim that athletes who frequently get injured, or perform poorly, typically have three weaknesses in common:
- Muscle Imbalances
- Core Stability Deficits
- Poor Neuromuscular Control
Conditioning programs limited to strength training and developing bigger muscles do very little to address and/or correct these impairments. Therefore, they do little to help keep an athlete healthy and on the field.
WHAT ARE MUSCLE IMBALANCES?
Athletic movement requires a balance of muscle strength and muscle length between opposing muscles of each joint in the body (example: quadriceps and hamstrings). When there are alterations to one side of a joint, this often causes pain or weakness to muscles on the opposite side; thus creating an imbalance. When the body does not have full functional use of each of its muscles, things can become problematic. Other muscles become forced to over-compensate which can ultimately lead to more compensation and subsequent injuries.
WHY IS CORE STABILITY IMPORTANT?
The core consists of much more than one's abdominals or "6-pack" muscles. It actually involves the muscles throughout hips, pelvis, and spine. The core, as a whole, works in a coordinated and intricate manner to help produce force, decelerate force, and stabilize against compressive, torsional, and shearing forces. It is truly the cornerstone of the human body. Research has shown that a lack of core stability is highly correlated to poorer athletic performance and increased risk of injury, particularly to the upper and lower extremities. Studies also demonstrate that athletes who have suffered from ankle sprains, knee pain, and muscle strains commonly present with core dysfunction as well.
WHAT IS NEUROMUSCULAR CONTROL AND WHAT IS ITS PURPOSE?
Neuromuscular control essentially refers to having command over one's body. It's the ability to recruit and fire the right muscles when needed, particularly those muscles required for dynamic stabilization. Dr. Mike Clark, the founder of the National Academy of Sports Medicine, provides a great analogy to describe it. He says, "Imagine a car that can go 150 mph, but the brakes only stop up to 50 mph. How fast would you drive the car?." He compares the car to an athlete's body and the brakes to an athlete's stabilizing muscles. They can be incredibly strong and fast but if they aren't able to use their brakes effectively then they will put themselves at increased risk for injury due to a lack of control.
That ability to control movement is essential, but being able to move properly is vital as well. One of the things that training staffs use to assess movement in athletes is the Functional Movement Screen (FMS).
THE FUNCTIONAL MOVEMENT SCREEN
The Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a screening tool used to identify limitations or asymmetries in seven fundamental movement patterns that are key for quality athletic movement. The premise behind it is that individuals with poor dynamic balance or asymmetrical strength/flexibility are at higher risk for injury.
The test scores the athlete from 0 to 3 on each of the seven movement patterns with a score of 3 considered normal. The test is, therefore, out of 21 possible points.
A 2007 study examined the relationship between professional football players' scores on the FMS and the likelihood of serious injury. The researchers gathered test scores from one NFL team prior to the start of the season and followed the players throughout the year. They discovered that those who scored 14 or less on the FMS were almost 12 times more likely to experience a serious injury.
Since that time, countless professional sports teams have implemented the FMS as part of their strength and conditioning programs due to its ability to detect movement dysfunction and assess injury risk.
(See Seattle Seahawks: http://www.seahawks.com/news/2013/04/15/seahawks-return-series-movement-tests)
Hopefully this article was helpful in shedding some light on potential causes of injury and how teams approach preventing them. As always, feel free to leave any questions or comments below.
-Bobby Esbrandt, PT, DPT, PES