As the hugely popular European national football leagues and the Champions League enter the business end of the season, the toll of a busy schedule on footballers is evident. At almost all clubs, the injury list is growing. Manchester United, for instance, lost their top scorer Marcus Rashford and full back Luke Shaw last week and defenders Raphael Varane and Lisandro Martinez picked up injuries during a Europa League game midweek.
“There are a lot of injuries as the season progresses,” says Joel Dones, the strength and conditioning coach of the Indian Super League club FC Goa. “The injuries occur because of overload. At the end of the season, for example, the legs and the bodies are more tired. They have lots of minutes in the legs.”
While it is common for human bodies to break down under sustained excessive loads—whether they are elite athletes, recreational athletes or fitness enthusiasts—there are ways to reduce injuries. In this regard, how players conduct themselves outside of their training and game time makes plays a big role. Dones calls it the “invisible training”.
“How they rest, how they eat, the levels of the stress of the players, the complimentary training that they do on their own. All of these are invisible training, things that we coaches cannot control. We can give them some advice, but they must do it by themselves. This is one of the ways to reduce the injuries,” says Dones.
The other thing that helps reduce injuries is the clubs main training regimen, Dones emphasizes. “It is about creating good basics for the athletes and players. Strength training is a really important part here, as it helps reduce injuries. There are many scientific studies that show that stronger players, with more strength, have reduced or fewer injuries than players who aren’t strong. So, strength training is really important for injury reduction.”
Strength work accomplishes three big goals, says Subhash Jangid, director and unit head of the Bone and Joint Institute at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. It prevents injuries by strengthening muscles and connective tissues; helps in improving speed by boosting neuromuscular coordination and power; improves movement economy by encouraging coordination and efficiency.
Apart from this, it is also important for the players to have good recovery sessions. It’s important to undergo good training just to help the body recover as soon and as fast as possible, adds Dones.
Once injured, players must go through a proper and planned recovery and rehab routine before they can return to the starting line-up or even make it to the bench. Rehab and recovery are two distinctly different phases. “In the first stage after an injury, the physios take over. They check the player and the injury and then work with them in the treatment room. This is important because injured players cannot do many things outside the treatment room,” says Dones. After that, as soon as the player feels better, it’s time to work in the gym, doing different types of strength exercises. This strengthens the affected muscle or joint, and gets it ready for the next, and final, stage, which is field training.
Field training is when footballers play and train under the eyes of the strength and conditioning coach, who now takes over the responsibility of taking care of the player from the physios, explains Dones.
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“This involves working with the player on specific actions or movements of play that led to the injury, and also the position that the player is playing in. For example, if the player is a full back, we work on the specific movements that a full back performs during the game. So, for me, this is how I understand the recovery and the rehab in stages for a player,” Dones says.
An injured player is ready to return to training when they are ready to perform basic movements such as jogging and running, without any problem. They start with work on the specific movements, tailored to the tactical position in which the footballer plays, as well as conditioning. The aim now is to bring them back to fitness levels that are optimal for professional football. It is only after a player feels good and doesn’t feel any problem, are they introduced one step at a time to full team training.
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However, statistically speaking, maximum injuries occur at the beginning of the season and not around the end of a football season. The players come from the off-season without little to no specific field or team training. Some aren’t prepared when the season begins, and they are introduced to different work and loads.
“The players have to adapt step-by-step to control a lot of these loads. This is the time when players are most susceptible to getting injured. It’s really important to control as much as possible the loads that coaches introduce to the players. This is the time when players are at their most vulnerable,” adds Dones.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.