Harnessing data to prevent injuries on the field

Harnessing data
to prevent injuries

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.

Amature Sports Injuies cost to the Australian economy $1.5 Billions
22% Drop in injury rate after FootyFirst pilot program.
1.4 Million players are registered in Amature clubs in Australia.

The FootyFirst program

Injury prevention is preferable to post-injury medical treatment at any level of sport, says Professor Finch. Enter the FootyFirst program, a training regimen she designed to reduce risk of common leg injuries in community football.

Created in conjunction with the AFL based on the latest scientific evidence, FootyFirst begins with a warm-up, followed by strengthening and conditioning exercises to improve a player's balance, landing, and side-stepping skills. While star athletes have a staff of conditioning coaches supporting them, FootyFirst requires only standard equipment and a spare 20 minutes for warm-up and exercise time.

More than 95% of people who play any form of sport aren’t professionals...there’s a whole group of people at risk of injury.

"There's a whole group of people at risk of injury, given that over 95% of people playing any kind of sport aren't professionals. That's what motivated me to get them this information," says Professor Finch.

A pilot FootyFirst program in the south-eastern Australian state of Victoria resulted in a 22 percent drop in the rate of injuries over the course of an amateur football season. At ECU, Finch and her team are now delivering videos, instruction manuals, and other resources to parents, coaches, and league administrators countrywide. For its part, the AFL provides accreditations to coaches of national club teams that use FootyFirst in their daily practices.

"My work has emphasized that it's not just about getting athletes to change their behaviour," says Finch. "Athletes are managed by coaches, and coaches are under pressure from administrators. Injury prevention requires everyone's involvement."

To Australia and beyond

Professor Finch promotes peer-reviewed evidence and statistics in motivating change among Australian athletic clubs, and has become one of the most influential sport-health researchers in the world. Deemed "true sports-medicine epidemiology royalty" by the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Professor Finch uses biostatistics —a merging of biomedical science and mathematics — to understand and prevent injuries on the playing field.

With statistics-based evidence, Finch aims to create an Australian sports-injury surveillance system similar to the NCAA's data-collection efforts in the United States. Along with the AFL, Finch is working with governing bodies in cricket and rugby and has spoken to federal and state governments on policies about — among other issues — protecting athletes competing in extreme weather conditions.

Professor Finch is also helping ECU make a global splash via ACRISP, one of only 11 research centres worldwide selected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to study the prevention and treatment of sports injuries and illness.

ACRISP provides research and guidelines on everything from training loads to recognition of concussion symptoms. Results are distributed to Olympic sports federations, which disseminate this data to the athletes themselves.

Professor Finch says the IOC recognition is a significant endorsement of ECU's sports-medicine research.

Professor Finch says the IOC recognition is a significant endorsement of ECU's sports-medicine research. This year, ACRISP unveiled two new PhD scholarships for research relating to injury surveillance and prevention in sport.

"It's exciting to be part of an elite group of international research centres delivering ground-breaking insights and new knowledge in the area of sports medicine," says Finch. "The fact that the IOC is supporting us is going to benefit ECU going forward. It's a direct measure of the excellence and relevance of the work we're doing here."

Professor Finch is pleased to assist all athletes in reaching their physical potential at whatever level that may be. Ultimately, preparation is key to a happy and healthy sporting life, she says.

"Training for any team or sport allows for reduced risk of injury, because your body is going to be fine-tuned for the motions of the game," she says.

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