Smarter Stretch Studio

Preventing Injuries In Soccer

A female high school soccer player swings leg back and prepares to kick ball during a match.

I will never forget sitting in the back of my dad’s car on the way to the hospital. I was holding my leg and it was bending half way down my shin! I am not sure if it was the pain or how long I would be away from the game that hurt the most.

It wasn’t my first soccer injury. It is almost hard to believe how many different body parts I had injured repeatedly. I strained both ankles multiple times. Both hamstrings and groins multiple times. I injured both knees multiple times…. The list goes on. I literally spent as much time injured as I did playing.

Some injuries, like my broken leg, were unavoidable, but looking back, I now know that the vast majority of the injuries I sustained were totally avoidable. If I had been given the right training, I wouldn’t have needed to miss anywhere as much time or gone though as much pain. If your child is one of the unlucky ones that keep getting injured, this article will be of particular importance to you.

This might come as a surprise, but I won’t be talking about stretching. Stretching is a fantastic tool for improving performance, but I haven’t seen a correlation between increased flexibility and less injuries. Dancers and gymnasts are very flexible, yet frequently get injured. The information that I am going to discuss in this article is the application of neuroscience. It isn’t something that is commonly known. I am going to talk about how training the brain and nervous system can prevent injuries.

Although brain training can be used to prevent injuries in all sports, there is something about soccer that makes it even more important. Heading the ball creates a repeated low-level trauma, which has a negative effect on the brain. This has now been shown by scientific studies, and led to the US Soccer Federation to ban heading in matches and practices for children under the age of 11. Repeated low level head trauma means the processes that I am going to outline below, constantly face potential disruption. Which means they need to be constantly worked on to reduce the risk of injuries.

The brain is the control centre of the body and when nervous system function is optimized, the chance of getting injured goes down dramatically. When vital processes related to movement don’t work properly, the results are the sort of repetitive injuries I had as a youngster. To help explain why, I am going to briefly describe what happens in two common soccer injuries from a nervous system perspective.

Ankle Sprains

Ankles sprains are the most common injury in soccer. While there are a number of different ligaments in the ankle, the vast majority of injuries happen to the anterior talofibular ligament (ATFL). The ATFL is located just in front of and below the outside anklebone. It is particularly susceptible to being injured when the ankle rolls outwards, like when cutting in and changing direction.

When a player plants the foot and tires to push off, the ankle starts to roll outward. This movement is detected by stretch receptors in the peroneus muscles and mechano-receptors in the ATFL and other ligaments on the outside of the ankle. These receptors then send messages, via nerves, back to the spinal chord and brain telling them about the changes in joint position.

This process is known as proprioception. When ankle proprioception is good, the brain and spinal chord signal the contraction of the peroneus muscles on the outside of the ankle. This stabilizes it, so the player can push off and change direction. If proprioception is poor, contraction of the peroneus muscles doesn’t happen quickly enough. Instead of the ankle being stabilized, the force of the player is taken by the ATFL and other ligaments. This is when the ligament can become strained and injured.

Hamstring Strains

After ankle sprains, hamstrings are the next most frequently injured body part in soccer. The hamstrings are susceptible to injury during sprinting and kicking. Most people believe this is due to lack of flexibility, but it is actually a co-ordination issue, and hence a brain issue. If it were just a flexibility problem, top professionals like Michael Owen wouldn’t have been plagued by hamstring injuries, they would just have stretched more!

In order to explain why I say it is a co-ordination issue, I am going to quickly outline how movement is created. Movement starts in the brain, in an area called the motor cortex. The Motor cortex is responsible for planning and creating movement. Once a movement has been planned, it sends information down the spinal chord and out to the relevant muscles telling them what to do. The motor cortex also sends information to a part of the brain called the cerebellum, which is responsible for comparing what was meant to happen with what is actually happening. If the actual movement is different the intended one, the cerebellum’s job is to make the adjustment.

All movements require precise coordination of contraction and relaxation of opposing muscles. If we use kicking as an example, as the player brings their thigh forwards, the hip flexor muscles contract and hamstring muscles relax. Then at the end of the kick, the hip flexors relax and the hamstrings muscle contract to decelerate the leg. If this doesn’t happen at precisely the right time, the hamstring can become strained and injured.

The natural instinct is to blame the tight hamstring, but that isn’t the case. If you take a muscle out of the body and away from the input of the nervous system, they are extremely flexible. It is the influence of the nervous system that creates tightness in a muscle. Hamstring injuries occur when the precise coordination between relaxation and contraction goes wrong and too much tension is held in the muscle at the wrong time. If the motor cortex and cerebellum were doing their job better, this wouldn’t happen. 

Training To Prevent Injuries

Although the training and coaching available to young soccer players is significantly better than when I grew up, it still has room for improvement. Training is mostly focused on the conditioning level. This makes sense because to play at a high level, you need to have tremendous fitness. The only problem is that being well conditioned doesn’t prevent injuries. I can tell you that from personal and professional experience.

It isn’t enough to hope that playing the sport or doing a little bit of stretching will achieve the required effect. When you perform the same patterns over and over again, you become good at those patterns. Any deviations can create a problem which is why injuries occur. A sudden change in direction takes the body out of the recognised patterns and the brain can’t respond appropriately. If the muddy field gives way as the foot plants, can the nervous system respond fast enough? As you try to volley the incoming cross, can the cerebellum precisely coordinated the relaxation and contraction of the hamstrings?

To minimize risk of injuries you need to train proprioception and coordination so should the unexpected happen, you can respond appropriately. The key to training the brain is an understanding of neurology 101, which says that the brain basically does three things. It receives input (1), it makes a decision (2) and it creates an output (3). We obviously want to change the output, but we can’t do that directly. What we can do though is improve input, which makes the right output more likely. Once you improve input the decision-making gets easier and faster, which results in better output.

Lets apply neurology 101 to the example of the ankle sprain we described earlier. To keep it simple, the input is the message being sent from the receptors of the ligaments and muscles on the outside of the ankle back to the spinal chord and brain. The decision is whether to contract the peroneus muscle or not. The output is the contraction of the muscle to stabilize the ankle joint.

If the receptors on the outside of the ankle have been trained properly, they become more efficient. They get better and faster at recognising what is happening. The nerves that carry the message are also trainable. Nerves respond in a similar way to muscles when they are trained. When you lift weights, muscles adapt by increasing their size to make the job easier. Nerves respond to repeated use by increasing in thickness, which enables messages to be carried faster. More sensitized receptors and faster nerve conduction equals better feedback. Better feedback leads to faster more accurate decision to contract the peroneus muscles.

Of course it isn’t quite this simple. There are also other inputs that will factor into the decision making process. At the same time the brain receives information on joint and muscle location it also receives visual information from the eyes and balance information from the inner ear. The brain uses all of the information available to it in its decision-making. Fortunately the visual system and balance system are highly trainable as well.

The science of how brain training works is complicated, but the exercises themselves are simple and fast. Once you know how to do it, you can massively reduce your chance of injuries in just in just 10 minutes a day.

The training philosophy I just described is the application of neuroscience. It isn’t something that is being offered to children in Canada yet. Brain based training offering your children the opportunity to get ahead of the game. It doesn’t just represent the future of injury prevention; it is the future of performance enhancement as well. In addition to less injuries and better skill level, brain training improves concentration and the ability to retain information at school.

If you would like to learn more, we are holding free workshops on preventing soccer injuries in December on  Tuesday Dec 6th, and Wednesday Dec 7th at 8pm at our studio.

Click the link below to register.

Register for free workshop – Preventing injuries in soccer

If you can’t make the date above but would like to learn more about how we can help your child, email sayhi@smarterstretchstudio.com

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