For top-tier athletes or weekend warriors, playing sports is valuable for physical coordination, fitness, and self-esteem, and teaches important lessons about teamwork and discipline. Professor Caroline Finch at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, is ensuring competitors at every level stay on the field, thanks to her research on sports-injury prevention, education and awareness.
As ECU's Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Vice-President for Research, and Director of the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention (ACRISP), Professor Finch is orchestrating efforts to prevent injuries in Australian Rules football, as well as among Olympic athletes.
ECU's elite-level injury-prevention programming is also being implemented in the amateur ranks, with an emphasis on training and preparation meant to reduce sports-related hospital visits.
"Injuries suffered playing amateur sports costs the Australian economy more than $1.5 billion a year," says Professor Finch. "While there is, rightly, a strong focus on preventing injuries on the roads and in our workplaces, a serious injury suffered on the footy field can be just as devastating for the individual and their family."
An ounce of prevention...
Australian Rules football —is a major research focus for Finch, author of more than 600 papers and reports on sports-injury prevention.
The sport is played between two teams of 18 players on an oval-shaped field, with participants scoring points by kicking an oval-shaped ball between goal posts. The Australian Football League, or AFL, is the sport's only fully professional association and represents the nation’s wealthiest sporting body.
As of 2016, the immensely popular game supported 1.4 million registered players participating in over 25,000 amateur clubs nationwide. Female football play is undergoing rapid growth, registering a 25 percent increase in participation from 2014 to 2015, according to a study helmed by Professor Finch and other researchers.
Like any athletic endeavour, Australian football carries an injury risk. The game's combination of tackling, kicking, jumping, and high-speed running results in a prevalence of lower-leg injuries, mostly hamstring strains, ankle sprains, and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries.
"More than 95 percent of people who play any form of sport aren't professionals. There's a whole group of people at risk for injury."
More contact-oriented than soccer, though less so than rugby, injuries in Australian football often occur from sudden changes in direction when running what Finch calls the equivalent of "a mini-marathon" every match. Although organized women's football is still in its early days, female participants are demonstrating higher incidence of ACL injuries, likely due to decreased ligament development as compared with men, and the lack of training programs needed to solve the issue.