Like any athlete, coach, or parent of an athlete will tell you, injuries are part of athletic competition. And for me, as a longtime soccer coach, it is evident that the three most common soccer injuries are those to the knees, ankles, and head (aka concussions). Be it that soccer is a sport that requires athletes to stop and change directions rapidly, it puts the knees and ankles in precarious positions. That is only if their body is not properly strengthened and conditioned ahead of time. The idea behind this article is to stress the necessity of preparation in the offseason and to provide insight on how to properly prepare your body during that lead-up period. Now, let’s get back to the three specific injuries mentioned…
Before we do anything, let’s dive into the basics of the knee and the four ligaments that help stabilize the knee joint:
Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at the front of the knee
Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) at the back of the knee
Medial collateral ligament (MCL) on the inside of the knee
Lateral collateral ligament (LCL) on the outside of the knee
Of the four, the two most common injuries of the knee are to the ACL and MCL. Studies have shown that female athletes are at greater risk for ACL injuries. Upwards of 8x more likely to suffer an ACL injury than their male counterparts, in fact. Why you ask? Females tend to have less neuromuscular control in their hips, which means they’re more likely to land with locked knees or in a position that puts their knees and ankles at risk after jumping. On the flip side, male athletes are more likely to have their knees bent, thus cushioning the landing and absorbing the force more effectively. Furthermore, as teenage girls mature physically, their hips tend to widen, which puts additional stress on the ligaments around the knee.
Ankle sprains occur when there is a stretching or tearing of ligaments surrounding the ankle joint. Lateral ankle sprains (outside the ankle) and medial ankle sprains (inside the ankle) can occur when the soccer athlete runs on damaged playing surfaces, makes a sharp cut with or for the ball, or twists their ankle while stepping incorrectly. In my experience, rolling onto the outside of the ankle is the most prevalent ankle injury I have seen.
A concussion is a form of brain injury caused by a sudden impact to the head. In my opinion, this occurs far too often because we do not teach our young players how to head the ball properly. Collisions with other players or hitting their head on the ground can also cause concussions, for sure, but for the sake of this article, I am focusing on heading of the ball. It is a lost teaching point and one that I am adamant about with all my players and teams. It is imperative that we not hide from this aspect of our game and be proactive in teaching it and teaching it well. This will minimize the bogeyman fear that has penetrated our sport for young athletes and their parents.
Injury Reduction and Prevention
Injuries are always going to be part of contact sports. They are an inevitability. What we want to focus on is minimizing the odds of injury as best we can. We can reduce injuries through proper conditioning PRIOR TO THE SEASON. Conditioning-related injuries, such as strains and sprains occur most often at the beginning of a season when players are most likely to be less fit. Such injuries are preventable if before the start of a season the player follows a conditioning program designed specifically for their sport.
Proper conditioning is particularly important for females when it comes to the sky-high ACL injuries we see season after season. Not only are female athletes predisposed to instability or dislocation of the kneecap, but the twisting, turning, and sudden change of direction in soccer make them particularly vulnerable to non-contact injuries. Strength training and flexibility are the keys to injury prevention in all aspects of the human body. If an athlete has extreme flexibility but also possesses weak muscles, or if they have strong muscles, but are lack pliability, this will ultimately lead to injury. A mix of strength and flexibility is the key to fitness. Building up the hamstrings and quadriceps, while teaching our female athletes to move and adjust their bodies appropriately while in action, will prevent many of these injuries.
Injury reduction can be enhanced through proper stretching, warm-ups, and post-activity cooldowns. Research shows that “cold” muscles are more prone to injury. Athletes with either or both: muscle inflexibility or muscle weakness are more likely to experience soreness and injury after activity. Dynamic stretching, particularly of the groin, hip, hamstrings, achilles tendon, and quadriceps, during warm-ups prior to training and games, followed by a cool-down after playing, is critical to reducing the risk. Attention Female Athletes Female soccer athletes… I cannot stress this enough… It is critically important for you to strengthen and stretch leg muscles to reduce the risk of ACL injuries. We want to build strength and flexibility in your hamstrings, quads, groins, and hip flexors. It is imperative! I have seen it every single season I have ever experienced coaching girls, at least one torn ACL happens in the program. EVERY. SINGLE. SEASON. It’s like clockwork. This is why I am being overly adamant about it in this article. Please do not allow yourselves to be that player!
ACL Injury Prevention
So, with all of that said, ACL injury prevention exercises are the next step in minimizing your odds of being sidelined. In addition to devoting considerable time to the exercises listed below, other factors that can help reduce the chances of an ACL injury include:
Dynamic stretching prior to athletic activity
Stretching for flexibility and recovery in between activity days
Learning and executing proper landing techniques. For example:
Landing with the knees bent but the legs kept in a straight line (no bowing out of the knees).
Landing on the balls of the feet instead of the entire foot or heel.
Maintaining a proper body posture throughout the landing process.
Ensuring both feet land simultaneously, to allow for complete body absorption.
Increase agility by training in ways that incorporate running, then stopping, then pivoting, and changing directions while maintaining proper body posture and positioning.
Learn to properly run backward and also side to side.
ACL injury prevention exercises include strengthening all of our leg muscles. If we strengthen the muscles that support the knee joint the ACL becomes less likely to succumb to injury. Some of the best exercises that strengthen the muscles of the legs include:
Squats - Whether it’s the bodyweight version, a barbell version, or even a single-leg version, these exercises strengthen the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstring muscles while improving balance.
Walking Lunges - Lunges strengthen the quadricep muscles, improve balance, and provide flexibility to the hips.
Calf Raises - Builds the muscles in the calf (backside of the lower leg).
Glute Bridge - The glutes help control the femur at the hip joint, thus minimizing knee stress. Also, it helps strengthen the posterior chain (your backside).
Nordic Curls - Nordic’s are an eccentric oriented exercise, meaning the hamstrings activate as the leg muscle lengthens. This is one of the best exercises for athletes who deal with a lot of running in their sport.
Single-Leg Hops – This is my favorite ACL strengthening exercise and it will lead to major knee stabilization and balance enhancement.
Ice Skaters – Improve your balance, coordination, and overall leg strength with this movement. It is also important to add side-to-side movements as well, as to not strain your body with unilateral movements.
With Dumbbells / Barbells:
Romanian Deadlifts – RDL’s target the posterior chain, which is key for increased power application, running performance, and overall leg strength.
Hamstring Curls – Whether with bands or on a leg curl machine, leg curls are the bicep curls for the legs.
Box Jumps – Box Jumps, strengthen your entire lower body and will help enhance your explosiveness, make you faster, and make your bottom half more powerful as a whole.
Split Jumps – Split jumps are one of the best ACL injury prevention exercises. And because this is an explosive movement, it should ONLY be done for as long as the action can be performed with perfect technique.
Jump Squats - A progression of the aforementioned squat, jump squats are more explosive movements that also allow athletes to learn how to properly land after a jump.
This list is the tip of the iceberg and a good start for anyone new to this process. Proper programming for these exercises should consist of at least 6 weeks of conditioning work prior to in-season training starting. Need help with proper programming? Uncertain of how to perform the movements correctly? No idea of how to head a soccer ball correctly? Let Coach Mike help you! Message firstname.lastname@example.org or text 614-301-6431 to find out more.