Gabby Charlton - APA Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist & Head Physiotherapist Fremantle Dockers AFLW
With the the footy season around the corner, Fremantle Docker’s AFLW physio Gabby discusses the most common football injuries and gender differences between male and female footballers in a three-week blog series.
The popularity of the AFLW competition is growing rapidly and in recent years there has been a huge influx of female footballers at grass roots level and development of female leagues across all ages. The short history of professional female football shows very different injury statistics to the male league.
As we know across many sports, male and female athletes have different biomechanical, hormonal and performance characteristics and injury prevention programs should be individualised across gender.
Common injuries in the female cohort
1. ACL strains/ruptures
The most prevalent injury in elite female football is ACL injury, accounting for 23% of all injuries. Since the league’s creation in 2017, ACL injury has consistently been 7-9x more prevalent than the male league and is again on track for this in the 2022 season. The nature of ACL injury is complex, there are many risk factors such as strength, motor control, biomechanics, exposure and fatigue and it is very hard for prevention and rehabilitation programs to truly mimic the unpredictable chaos of a football field.
While the era of female football is certainly upon us, the pathway for adolescent females and state levels programs are still very underdeveloped compared to their male equivalent. The difference in level of funding and resources results in less exposure to strength programs, ACL prevention programs (like FIFA 11+), and competitive football. Without adequate strength and motor control exposure, the dynamic stabilisers around joints like the knee and ankle as not as ‘well programmed’ to protect ligaments in vulnerable positions. As the speed of elite AFLW increases, there is a lag in developing these movement patterns in the pathway to elite sport.
It is essential in field sports to train an athlete’s movement in a similar way to how they move on field. For AFL/W think jumping and landing (possibly with uncontrolled contact), unpredictable cutting or change of direction and absorbing contact. Creating reactive situations helps the body respond quickly to similar situations in a game. The research suggests there is around a 1 in 5 recurrent rate for ACL injury, making it even more important for athletes with a previous injury to continue injury prevention programs well after their return to football.
Any rehab program should focus on an athlete’s biggest risk factors and therefore be individualised to them. Rehab from an ACL injury is usually around 12 months as it takes significant time and work to rebuild strength, landing control and cutting mechanics. Done well, a player returns to their sport as a better athlete.
Concussion is the second most prevalent injury in elite AFLW, accounting for 15% of all injuries. Since the league’s creation there has been a large focus on tackle technique and how to safely deliver and receive contact.
Although the prevalence of concussion is around double that of the men’s league, the exact reason for this is not abundantly clear. Research around concussion is still ongoing and new studies are starting to investigate the amount of force required to sustain a concussion, plus gather information on how many ‘contacts’ a football player receives in a game.
In the 2021 season, all levels of AFL introduced a compulsory 12 day return to play plan for any player who suffered a concussion. While physiotherapists can not diagnose concussion, they can help with elements of rehabilitation, particularly when balance, vision or the neck is involved
Searching for an injury prevention program for a club or athlete? WA SportsMed Physiotherapists can create whole team or individual injury prevention program depending on your requirements.
Unfortunate enough to have one of these injuries? We pride ourselves on designing elite-level programs for athletes of all levels to get your back on the field as quickly and safely as possible.