Stop selling air: thoughts about injury prevention

accident_prevention_2It was quite a long time ago when I first heard the magical phrase „injury prevention“. I was a total rookie in the field back then, having too many idealistic goals and false ideas. Thus, the idea of preventing injuries seemed noble to me and I really believed that I could save the world.

A pair of words „injury prevention“ has become an effective method to sell your program or products. A physiotherapist or strength and conditioning coach can make a lot of money if his/her program promises to prevent ACL tears or ankle sprains.  Every coach and club owner wants their athletes to be ready for each event and that no-one has to skip a game because of an injury. The number of studies related to injury prevention is rapidly growing. Current research is mainly focused on football because of its popularity, the characteristics of the game and the money that is involved. Even FIFA, one of the biggest sports organizations in the world, has put a lot of effort in their warm-up program „11+“. Furthermore, there are special journals and organizations that write about this topic, additionally many countries, sports organizations and university sports departments have developed their own injury prevention programs.

Today (while still being a rookie), I find these endless discussions, blog posts and promotions about injury prevention overrated. The point is right though: there are definitely too many injuries which all lead to enormous losses in time, money and mental abilities. The fact is that we cannot really prevent injuries – we can merely reduce their incidence or their severity. Ideally, recreational sports should have health-beneficial effects; however, injuries are an inevitable aspect of elite sport.

I am a big fan of foam rollers, correct stretching procedures at a proper time, the concept of stability and mobility, ice baths and so on. But why do we have to talk about these things as a part of injury prevention as if it was something unique and unusual? Why don´t we see these products and activities as completely natural and self-evident in the sport context? What I am trying to say is that a well-planned training system and a carefully devised coaching philosophy can reduce injuries. It is not about buying into a special program: every practice should have a smooth and organized design which leads to a better well-being of an athlete.

Conducting a good program starts from a single practice, starting with a proper warm-up. In a team environment it is not enough to warm up with a bunch of people, there should also be an individual aspect. It is important to add foam rolling (read Luka’s last post), dynamic movements etc to the training. Finally, a thorough cool down and muscle relaxation are necessary to complete a practice unit. However, besides obvious, it cannot be forgotten that regular training monitoring, treating minor and old injuries with care, proper nutrition and hydration, enough rest (also sleeping hours), massage and working on your mind are also important in order to reduce the occurrence. Further neglected training aspects are safety equipments, a secure environment and emergency preparedness.

If we take the above mentioned „11+“ warm-up program it can be seen that it is not anything unique or unheard-of. It is a warm-up program, consisting of sport-specific running-, strengthening-, contact-, stretching-, balance-, and agility exercises that emphasize proper technique and body control above everything. If an athlete moves properly and the brain and the body have been taught to move correctly, then most of the potential problems are automatically counteracted. And although it is important to emphasize the diversity of movements, every coach should consider the specific sport: it is not effective to google “basketball exercises” and use them regularly in swimming practices. In fact, Google is our enemy in most of the cases when we do not think critically.

Elite sport is all about balance: balancing training and competition, balancing workouts and rest periods, balancing different muscles, balancing various training cycles and exercises, balancing sports and personal life etc. The balance between all the above mentioned is the key in injury reduction. I believe that excessively focusing on directly preventing something, will take that balance away. Be thorough and proactive, teach an athlete to know his/her body and to take care of it as the biggest treasure. Do not sell words, make every practice count!

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