What was initially supposed to be an expression of interest in a premier league competition had over a thousand women register in its first year and by 2019 there were seven divisions. The SEFL, EDFL , SFL and EFL have all seen similar growth.
So, with this increase in activity, have we seen an increase in injuries? Absolutely! Four players in the AFLW sustained an ACL injury in the first four weeks of competition in 2018. As compared with the one per year average at AFL clubs.
Injury data at the community level is hard to collate and likely to be heavily underreported. There are currently several Australian Universities funding a number of projects targeted at community level football injuries but the data and results from these are some years away.
But what we do know is that the injury rate in women is estimated to be anywhere between 2-4 times that of male players.
There are numerous factors:
1. The Nature of the sport
Football is unique from many other sports that have previously dominated the female sporting landscape such as netball, tennis, running, basketball and general gym fitness (Source: ABS) in that it requires full contact tackling.
The tackling, bumping and body to body contact techniques that are a feature of AFL are all skills that require development and refinement over an extended period of time.
The limited playing pathways available to female players until recent years means that many community level players simply have not had access to the volume of exposure that would be necessary for safe skill development.
Learning to tackle in your teens or 20’s is always going to be harder than if you have been doing it since you were in juniors.
2. Risk Factors
Given that football is a relatively new option for women, there has been an influx of women either commencing or returning to the sport after a long absence, at many different age groups.
In the early days of the AFLW, there was a higher proportion of athletes in their thirties than was usually seen in the AFL due to the lack of traditional youth-driven pathways. Increasing age statistically correlates with an increased injury risk across both genders.
There is also a reasonable body of evidence to support the theory that females are more likely to rupture their ACL due to specific anatomical and hormonal differences. Community level female players are able to play until much later in life hence increasing their risk when they do.
3. Reduced Exposure to Traditional Injury Prevention
There is mounting research to support the concept that strength training reduces injury risk for various injuries and not just ACL’s.
Given that many women’s football clubs are in their infancy, facilities and funding are often scarce and exposure to strength and conditioning programs vary greatly from club to club.
And in many instances are absent altogether. Community level athletes aren't subject to the injury management systems in place at professional level clubs so they are less monitored, managed and may not always have the same access preventative health services.
Considering all these factors, you can already see how the recreational female footballer can become part of this high risk group!
SO WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
Strength Training- Major sporting bodies such as FIFA and Netball Australia have utilised current research to create injury prevention preparation programs.
The programs are designed to develop the way players absorb load and tolerate training and incorporate elements of strength training and effective warm up drills. Prevention programs can be helpful to introduce an athlete to strength training with a view to developing a more complex strength program. The AFL is no different.
The Prep to Play Program has been developed by the AFL in conjunction with La Trobe University and offers extensive resources on how to reduce injury and improve performance in female footballers.
Community coaches should all become familiar with this resource and incorporate it into their training programs.
Recovery and load management- Although it can be tempting for coaches at the recreational level to ‘go hard’ to get their athletes into shape, research has shown that even small increases in unaccustomed load can increase the risk of soft tissue and tendon injuries.
Recent research suggested a ‘safe zone’ for increasing training loads at around 5-10% (reference) and above 20% as increasing the risk of injury.
If you are a female footballer, a physiotherapist can assist you in developing an effective strengthening program that incorporates the right amount of load.
We can do biomechanical assessments that will help establish the root cause of your injuries and target them with football-specific rehabilitation that will not only enable you to heal but to improve your performance.
In 2021 we have no fewer than 5 physiotherapists who are presently working at AFL or AFLW level across 4 different clubs.
Chances are, if you have a favourite team we have someone who works there! Our clinic has strong links to the most current practices, professional systems and research in injury prevention.
We believe that if you play womens footy, a successful injury free season should be the standard.
We are passionate about supporting womens sport and using the best research has to offer to ensure we get you across the line.
How can we help you?
At Melbourne Sports Physiotherapy our goal is to get you moving pain free as soon as possible.
But, we also want you to actually move better and live a healthier, more active and fulfilling life!
If your sports, fitness training or work has been wearing your body down, book in with one of our expert massage therapists so we can help you reduce your pain or stiffness.
If you are showing some signs of this condition or simply want help prevent this from happening in the future then book in with one of our highly experienced Remedial Massage Therapists today!