To say that women’s football has exploded in the last three years is an understatement. The exposure brought by the AFLW has filtered down to local level and women everywhere are showing interest in the game.
We recently saw the AFLW Grand Final, VFLW is underway away, and the Victorian Amateur Football Association has also kicked off a third season. From what was initially an expression of interest in a premier league competition has, in three years, had over a thousand women register and is now up to seven divisions.
So, with this increase in activity, have we seen an increase in injuries? Absolutely! Four players in the AFLW sustained an ACL injury in the first four weeks of competition in the first year. As compared with the one ACL per year as an average at men’s AFL clubs. For the last two years, the number one draft pick has ruptured her ACL in the first week of competition. Speaking from experience, at South Melbourne Districts we had two ACL’s, a shoulder dislocation, broken fingers requiring surgery and a broken ankle in the first season alone. In one team.
In season two, another ACL and a shoulder dislocation, three players requiring surgery for broken fingers, a broken ankle and multiple concussions requiring one or more missed games. Sadly, our opposing clubs had similar troubles.
Female athlete attrition due to injury is not unusual at club level and can greatly affect a team’s run into finals.
So why is this happening?
There are numerous factors:
1. The nature of the sport: Football is unique from many other sports that have previously dominated the female sporting landscape such as netball, tennis, running (Source: ABS ), in that it requires full-contact tackling. Teaching safe and effective tackling is one of many skills that recreational level coaches have to fit in to an already jam-packed preseason program, along with teaching basic skills, game rules, and achieving baseline fitness.
2. Risk Factors: Football is a relatively new option for women, as such there has been an influx of women of varying ages, who are either commencing or returning to the sport after a long absence. As seen in the AFLW, there were a higher proportion of athletes in their thirties in the first season, as compared to the AFL. Increasing age statistically correlates with an increased injury risk across both genders. There is also a reasonable body of evidence to support the theory that females are more likely to rupture their ACL due to specific anatomical and neuromuscular differences. In females, the ACL is statistically smaller, the notch it is housed in is smaller, and muscle recruitment patterns differ between men and women. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4805849/)
3. Reduced Exposure to Traditional Injury Prevention: There is mounting research to support the concept that strength training reduces injury risk for various injuries, not just ACLs. Given that many women’s football clubs are in their infancy, facilities and funding are often scarce and exposure to strength and conditioning programs vary greatly from club to club.
Considering all these factors, you can already see how the recreational female footballer can become part of this high risk group.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
Strength Training: Major sporting bodies such as FIFA and Netball Australia have utilised current research to create injury prevention programs. The programs are designed to develop the way players absorb load, improve training tolerance and incorporate elements of strength training. Hopping, lateral movement and cutting are key components of these programs.
Prevention programs can be helpful to introduce an athlete to strength training with a view to developing a more complex strength program. The AFL has developed the Footy First program, which is an excellent resource for coaches and players to use in their training.
Recovery and load management: Although it can be tempting for coaches at recreational level to ‘go hard’ to get their athletes into shape, research has shown that increasing load too quickly can lead to the development of a tendon injury. Recent research suggested a ‘safe zone’ for increasing training loads at around 5-10% and above 20% as increasing the risk of injury.
If you are a female footballer, a physiotherapist can assist you in developing an effective strengthening program that incorporates the right amount of load. We can adjust your training regime to keep you competing and we are specialists in rehabilitation to get you back on the field.
Amanda Ventura is a Senior Physiotherapist at MPPFG, and you can book in with her by calling (03) 9534 0611.
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