A recent article on BBC Sport explored the nature of the increased incidents of knee injuries in football, describing it as an “epidemic”, and exploring the potential reasons for such an increase.
In it, the article discusses the potential reasons for the increase, identifying an increase in loading being a potential factor, which is a natural and logical conclusion to make when you consider the increase in distances covered by modern players due to improved fitness, changes in tactics such as many clubs employing high-pressing tactics, and of course the ever growing influence of TV broadcasters and viewers demanding more games, leading to increasing fixture congestions, all playing a role to increase player activity and reduced recovery time (I’m not even sure if current football “off season” can be classed as that anymore).
Whilst all of the above are likely factors for the increase in knee injuries, the article also rightfully points to other potential variables; from shoe design to pitch and surface types of the modern football ground. The truth is, answers to what may cause an injury can be wide and encompassing.
The article reminded me of a recent conversation I had with my old boss at a Premier League football club. Previously the Head of Performance for the academy, he’s now the First Team manager of the ladies’ team, with the opportunity to implement his methodology from top to bottom, for what will no doubt be a great project. It was a night of deep introspection and discussions on the nature of sports science and its future, and was the first time in a long time I had to put on my “sports science” hat (I would barely class myself as one these days). To say he has become jaded with the nature of sports science would be a bit of understatement (and I’m sure he would be fine with me saying so). And honestly, who can blame him? I challenge anyone to work in the world of sports science in professional football and not be. A decade of collecting piss samples every morning from half-awake players barely interested in anything not involving a ball, pushing energy drinks on them from your energy drink suppliers (what good is water these days? doesn't hydrate enough...apparently), GPS data that makes negligible impact on the influence of the coaches and many more can do that to anyone.
There’s been a recent backlash to sports science, probably caused by years of expensive technology and promises of a single metric that can decide the fate of an athlete’s future, that seems to be growing. From my (albeit limited) perception, it’s growth seems to be based on the challenge that we know the variables to cause injuries. But as the article in the BBC showed, there are potentially numerous variables that can cause an injury, some more influential than others, but still so many "known unknown" and "unknown unknowns" that can be a factor. This can range from tangibles such as environment (temperature, surface type, visual distractions, etc.) to the intangibles (emotional state, mental focus, stress, etc.). From sports (different sports providing its own unique loads) to individualisation (genetics, sports history, injury history, etc.).
When you consider just how many variables can be a factor for injury, it’s easy to understand the motivation to join the backlash against sports science and against the notion that any single magical metric can define and predict injuries. But in doing so, are we not at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? The industry has barely matured, yet there’s already talks of its early demise. I understand the emotional response to fight against those who may look to use the industry for profit (I know I know, the irony!) but we should probably slow down before we all turn “anti-sports science” (Lord knows the industry doesn’t need any more of those). Yes, the variables for the cause of injuries may be near infinite, but that hasn’t stopped science before. We may never know the darkest depths of the sea and what lies within, but that doesn’t mean we stop looking to delve into the darkness (certainly won’t stop James Cameron from going down there and getting more inspiration to make more Pocahontas-themed alien movies). Equally, we may never truly know all the mysteries of the cosmos, but that won’t stop mankind from taking ever closer steps to understanding the secrets beyond the skies (unless of course Nolan was right, and we’re all just living behind a wardrobe).
There are many factors that may cause an injury, factors that may be endless. But it is our duty, as an industry to know as much as we can, because it is still better to have 20% vision than to be completely blind. Just requires a bit of honesty and co-operation between all those involved. There may not be a “magic metric”, but we can still get to a stage where we know a sufficient degree to make informed decisions and preventative measures that are also not at the risk of increasing performance (also aware that there are a select few at that stage already). The incidents of knee injuries may be growing, but it’s also hard to know how much worse it really would be without the intervention of science and from those who know how to apply it properly and honestly.