The Christy O'Connor column: Too much too soon risks injury on GAA return

The Christy O'Connor column: Too much too soon risks injury on GAA return
Anthony Nash of Cork speaking with team doctor Dr Con Murphy. Avoiding injuries will be a big concern for GAA players returning to action this week. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

BEFORE the Bundesliga, the German football league, recently returned, the proposed matchday nine schedule looked unforgiving, especially for the three top-flight clubs still in the German cup.

Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich (who won their semi-finals midweek) have two more fixtures on that schedule, including the final, on July 4, so that both clubs play 11 matches in 49 days.

“I don’t think the players are optimally prepared,” said Wilhelm Bloch, a sports doctor at the German Sports University in Cologne, before the Bundesliga returned.

“We have to assume that not everyone has worked as well as possible in the small groups and in-home training. Less than ideal conditioning simply means higher risks,” Prof Bloch said.

While several players, and player unions across Europe, expressed misgivings about returning to action during the coronavirus pandemic, the threat of injury had, before soccer games returned, taken a back seat.

The Bundesliga was Europe’s first major league to resume its season during the pandemic, and there was a heavy toll of injuries in the first weekend of action.

The most conspicuous was 17-year-old US midfielder Giovanni Reyna, who was denied a first start for Borussia Dortmund: He picked up an injury during the warm-up before the Schalke 04 Ruhr derby.

Reyna was replaced by Thorgan Hazard, who himself went off with an injury. Schalke 04 pair Jean-Clair Todibo and Amine Harit also suffered injuries the same afternoon.

FC Cologne's Florian Kainz in action with FC Augsburg's Carlos Gruezo during the German Bundesliga soccer match. Picture: Michael Dalder, Pool via AP
FC Cologne's Florian Kainz in action with FC Augsburg's Carlos Gruezo during the German Bundesliga soccer match. Picture: Michael Dalder, Pool via AP

The numbers weren’t surprising. During the NFL player lockout in the US in 2011, the players were out of competitive action for a length of time similar to what GAA players are facing: March to August.

The NFL’s pre-season that year was condensed from 12-14 weeks to 17 days. As a result, injuries spiked: Achilles tendon ruptures were four-fold; there was also a massive increase in injury recurrence.

Eamon O’Reilly, in an excellent presentation, titled ‘Return to Play post-Covid-19’ (part of the GAA’s coach webinar series), outlined how those NFL findings will be obvious in GAA teams in the coming months.

American football is a far more violent and physical sport than hurling and football.

However, high volumes of injuries are inevitable when players go back training after a long period without playing, and particularly when players have largely been left to their own devices.

More importantly, having a much more condensed pre-season, especially for club players, is going to make a massive difference in how prepared players are when matches do return.

“So, it’s really important to acknowledge that we’re not going to have the same type of season that we always had,” said O’Reilly, the clinical lead physio at the Sports Physiotherapy and Athletic Rehab Clinic (SPARC), in Dublin. “And as coaches, we have to adjust how we’re going to interact with our players, and how we’re going to plan our sessions.”

O’Reilly’s presentation was aimed more at club players than inter-county players. There are links between injury-free teams and successful teams, but all coaches and managers have a duty of care to players returning to action in a different environment.

Coaches need to be more diligent because inappropriately prescribed training load can lead to injuries. And increasing the training load too quickly can lead to large increases in injury.

Shamrock Rovers director of football Stephen McPhail at their return to training. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne
Shamrock Rovers director of football Stephen McPhail at their return to training. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

O’Reilly referred to a 2016 study by Tim Gabbett, which showed that a weekly increase of 50% in training load leads to a 38% increase in injury.

There is a balance and this is the key challenge for coaches at all levels. If players are not being prepared at the right level, they will be under-prepared when competitive matches do return.

Meeting the demands of the game will be harder for club players, when there will only be a return to full training 11 days before club competitions begin. With no challenge games, many players could be playing their first competitive match in a year.

Tactical and technical skill execution in the most pressurised situations will be key to team success in such a shortened window. Yet decreasing injury risk will be a fundamental part of getting players up to game speed, with incremental loading and proper recovery having key roles.

In the current time frame, O’Reilly spoke about the importance of the speed ‘vaccine’. The concept details how speed work can play such a key role in injury prevention. Developing lower body strength, repeat sprint ability, and speed increases tolerance to workload and decreases injuries.

That sprint-based training can be incorporated into the session for coaches, but varying levels have to be gradually built up.

Yet probably the most fundamental part of every training session in the coming months will be the warm-up.The GAA have been very progressive in this area, with two main warm-up programmes currently utilised. The GAA 15 was developed by the GAA’s scientific and welfare committee, while the Activate warm-up was developed by Sports NI (SINI), along with the Ulster Council.

Both programmes are largely based on the concepts of the FIFA 11+ warm-up. When Holly Silvers conducted a study on that model, her findings showed how, in following that warm-up, there was a decrease in overall injuries of 46%.

In the coming weeks and months, it’s in every player’s interest to do a proper warm-up. Despite everybody’s hunger and eagerness to get back on the field after such a long lay-off, the wait could be agonisingly prolonged with injury.

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