Top Tips for a Successful Return to the Football Season - Insights and Advice from a Physiotherapist
Written by Todd Grbac– Physiotherapist, In Stride Health Clinic
As a footballer (pictured in my days playing for the Macedon Cats), a physiotherapist and with my ongoing work as a physio/sports trainer with the AFL Talent Pathway in the VIC Metro Boys’ program, I have extensive personal and professional experience in preparing for and getting through an AFL season (and footy injury). With several interrupted years of footy, it’s more important than ever to prepare well to maximise your game fitness and reduce the likelihood of injury. This blog will share some of my top tips and advice on how to reduce the risk of injury going into the 2022 Australian Rules football season, in order to keep you on the track, and off the sidelines as consistently and as effectively as possible.
With life slowly beginning to return to some resemblance of ‘normal’, we all have our fingers crossed that we can finally have an uninterrupted stretch of sporting seasons across the different codes. This is especially true for Australian Rules Football where, unless you happen to be playing for an AFL club, the last two seasons have been cut short and cancelled leaving all other footballers in a state of limbo.
Through my continuing work with the Vic Metro boys’ program in the AFL talent pathway, I have seen many a player fulfill their lifelong dream of getting drafted to an AFL club. Yes, this is partly due to their talent and skill on the field, but also their diligence and professionalism off the field which allows them to be the player that they are on gameday consistently. I have also experienced the other side of the coin, where incredibly talented players, perhaps who placed less importance on the off-field qualities, have had their draft chances slashed secondary to not being able to showcase their talents and skills due to constant and ongoing injury.
With the impending return of the football season, prospective players of all levels will be absolutely itching to get back out there after such a long time away from the game. With such a long spell away from the game that we love, it’s a very unfortunate reality that we expect to see a relatively high amount of injuries upon both the commencement of pre-season and the regular season. Injuries, whilst a part of the game, pose a great burden and toll on an individual’s physical and mental health, but also to a team’s aspirations for success in the 2022 season. It must be said that there is no way that we can truly ‘prevent’ injuries, but we can reduce the risk factors associated with the onset of injuries that are commonly seen in the sport.
This blog will share some of my top tips and advice on how to reduce the risk of injury going into the 2022 Australian Rules football season, in order to keep you on the track, and off the sidelines as consistently and as effectively as possible.
1. Maintain a ‘baseline fitness’
Perhaps a tip that may have come a bit too late for most is to maintain a relatively high baseline of ‘footy fitness’ during the off-season. This would obviously have been a relatively large challenge during such a long off-season which had no end in sight, with motivation being incredibly hard to come by for some. However, I couldn’t recommend this highly enough. After the seasons end, we lose global physical conditioning and match-specific conditioning at a relatively fast rate, particularly if we don’t maintain any sort of training over the off season.
The body is unbelievably clever at adapting to the loads placed upon it. So, when someone runs 3 times per week, the cardiovascular and neuromuscular systems adapt to make that person better at running. The same thing happens when we don’t load (exercise) our body a lot but in the opposite way, our body and its tissues gets used to the loads placed upon it and it will get good at sitting on the couch (for example). Now, if we’ve done next to nothing physically over the off-season and it comes around to pre-season time, there is going to be a sudden increase in the physical demands placed upon the body that it will not be prepared for, which presents a large risk factor for the development of pain and injury.
So, maintain your global and footy-specific fitness levels in order to…
2. Avoid any sudden spikes in training load –
If you may have not been so diligent over the prolonged off-season (don’t beat yourself up – you’re human!), there is no better time than right now to get cracking and start preparing your body and mind for pre-season and regular season.
However, if and when doing so, it is super important to do your best to start slow and progress your training slowly and gradually in order to give your body time to adapt and get stronger with the new training loads. We know that sudden spikes in training loads are a major risk factor in the development of many pain conditions and injuries, with particular culprits being that of patellofemoral pain, shin splints, bone stress injuries and tendon pain, all of which can negatively affect a players ability to get on the field.
3. Lift Weights
Football is a tough and incredibly physically demanding game, and so the idea of doing more physical work may seem a bit strange to some but here me out…
Lifting heavy weights as a part of a smartly set-out program will go a long way to prepare you for the demands of the game by increasing your muscle strength, which is hugely important in footy performance, but is also paramount at reducing the risk for muscle/tendon injuries. In addition to this, we know that lifting heavy weights has a positive impact on bone strength, potentially making them more resistant to bone stress injuries. Consistent weightlifters have also been shown to have healthier joint surfaces and in particular, stronger and thicker anterior cruciate ligaments, potentially serving as a protective barrier against ACL injury.
A good well-rounded gym program focusses primarily on the fundamental compound lifts such as squat variations, hip-hinge variations, lunge variations, pulling and pushing variations. These will be the best bang-for-your-buck movements in terms of building global strength, as long as they are progressively overloaded to challenge you and provide a stimulus for musculoskeletal adaptation.
Some examples of foundational movements (there are plenty more)
o Barbell back/front squat
o Goblet squat
o Split Squat
o Bulgarian split squat
- Hip Hinge
o Barbell Deadlift
o Trap Bar Deadlift
o Romanian (stiff leg) dead lift
o Single leg Romanian deadlift
o Kettlebell swing
- Hip thrust
o Barbell Hip Thrusts
o Foot elevated glute bridges
o Single leg glute bridges
o Barbell/dumbbell bench press
o Incline/decline bench press
o Overhead press
o Landmine press
o Pull/Chin ups
o Rows and all variations
o Lateral raises
o Face pulls
- Some more body-part specific exercises that are incredibly valuable
o Nordic Hamstring curl variations
o Copenhagen adduction exercise
o Single leg calf raise variations – bent and straight knee
So, the above spiel about heavy slow resistance training will look to improve the body’s ability to take on high loads and produce high amounts of force so the emphasis is on strength development. This helps to increase the body’s global capacity which is brilliant.
However, footy isn’t just about raw strength…
Being a highly dynamic game, footballers need to have the ability to be powerful movers. Look at Dangerfield, Dusty, Petracca and their ability to get the ball from a seemingly stand still position to all of a sudden being in the clear out of a stoppage. This is an example of muscle power (among other things) which is the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce high amounts of force very quickly. Muscle power is trained in a relatively similar manner to strength (similar movements and exercises) with the way we perform the exercises differing slightly. For power training, we shift the focus towards moving weights more quickly, with an emphasis on explosive movement as opposed to shear amount of weight lifted/force produced.
This type of training not only increases muscle power that is required for the game, but also has amazing effects on bone health, muscle and tendon properties, whilst also preparing the body to handle the powerful movements performed during a match. Do not skip on power training – it’s not all about strength.
4. Prepare your body, your nervous system and its tissues for the rigors of the sport – Regularly practice and implement sprinting, change of direction, jumping, hopping and landing mechanics in your training.
Want a way to figuratively bullet proof your hamstrings? Practice and implement sprinting into your year-round program. Sprinting is the highest-load activity for the hamstring and if programmed in a smart way, it can reduce the risk of hamstring injury by increasing your hamstrings ability to tolerate high intensity sprinting efforts. This is obviously incredibly important to be a successful player. The hamstring is the most commonly injured body part in Australian Rules football so making an effort to decrease the risk of injury to the area is hugely important.
Change of Direction/Agility
In a similar manner to sprinting, implementing change of direction drills into your training will be very beneficial to prepare your body for (you guessed it)… change of direction! The ability to change direction instinctively and in a quick fashion is of the highest importance in footy to be able to evade opponents, track down an opponent to tackle or track down the unpredictable bounce of that bloody oval-shaped ball.
It’s important to also practice change of direction/agility in uncontrolled and random contexts. This essentially means doing agility drills that surprise you and don’t give you the opportunity to prepare for the direction-change, simulating the random nature of the game. We don’t get told exactly which way the ball is going to bounce or which way our opponent is going to balk in a game, so train in a similar way to this to best prepare for the random/uncontrolled nature of the game.
Plyometric training aims to improve the ability of muscles and tendons to store and release energy effectively, efficiently and quickly. Think of the muscles and tendons acting like a spring in activities such as jumping, change of direction and even sprinting – this energy storage and release. It is one of the most effective ways to improve power, strength, speed, jump height and other sports performance variables. Another huge benefit of this type of training is its positive effect on bone health. As well as the improvements in performance, it’s one of the best ways to improve tendon mechanical properties, decreasing risk of tendon rupture or overuse tendon injuries again, as long as it is programmed well.
Jumping and landing training
Performing jumping and landing in a manner of different contexts and environments can go a long way to decreasing injury risk for a variety of body parts, namely the knee and ankle. Think of all the times in an Aussie Rules game where we land on one leg from a jump, when we change direction and even when we run.
We know that most ACL injuries occur as non-contact or indirect contact mechanisms where the individual is landing from a jump or changing direction suddenly when the knee buckles inwards and gives way (not ideal to see!!). This can be greatly addressed by learning how to jump and land with better mechanics and movement patterns, as well as learning to accept jumping loads through the knees and the quadriceps. This could potentially be even more important for the women’s game, where unfortunately we are seeing a relatively high rate of ACL injuries.
If we imagine that the entire football season is a race that ends with the ultimate goal of winning a premiership, then surely, we would do anything legal within our power to give us the best chance of finishing the race in first place. Now, there are numerous obstacles that can push us back in the race with the biggest one being injuries. So why not do everything that we can to try and minimize the impact that this obstacle can have, so we then finish ‘the race’ in the best position possible?
“The best ability is AVAILABILITY” – Said by any and every coach in the world!
If footy or any sport is something you are serious about in 2022 and beyond, and you feel like you need some guidance with regard to training and injury risk reduction, come and see us at In Stride Health Clinic and we will do everything we can to prepare for a successful season ahead.
We have awesome facilities in the clinic with a whole host of Pilates equipment, gym-based equipment, as well as access to the Ascot Vale Leisure Centre gym and Hydrotherapy pool – we have all bases covered to ensure you get the most out of yourself this year and beyond.
Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog where we will discuss 5 more important tips to ensure the most successful 2022 season possible for you and your team.
Todd Grbec is full time physiotherapist at In Stride Health Clinic and available to provide you with guidance and injury management/prevention to assist with a successful pre season, season and future off season. Todd utilises hands on treatments, education and exercise rehabilitation including gym, clinical pilates, hydrotherapy and prescribing home programs. To book an appointment, visit our online booking system at www.instridehealthclinic.com.au or call 9372 8091.
Get to know a bit more about Todd by checking out his profile at http://www.instridehealthclinic.com.au/physiotherapists