As we all know, contact sports can be dangerous and put athletes at a risk for injury. Of these potential injuries, an ACL rupture is one of the more severe possibilities an athlete can suffer as they can cause them to be out of the game for quite a while depending on how well the rehabilitation process goes for the individual. However, these are not something we just have to accept as part of the game; approximately 80% of ACL injuries are non-contact thus can likely be prevented.
Injury prevention seems to have a boring connotation and isn’t typically something that athletes get particularly excited about including in their workouts; yet it is critical to increasing the longevity of athletic careers. When qualified coaches run athletes through movement assessments there are various warning signs that may put certain athletes at a higher risk for an ACL injury. The main red flag is an athlete that presents serious knee valgus (or when the knees fall inward). Imbalances in the kinetic chain along with coordination deficits can lead to compensations which, when left uncorrected, often turn into injuries. When these movements are noticed it’s crucial that the athlete begin a corrective exercise program prior to progressing to more complex and explosive movements. In these instances, a personalized corrective plan would be best so that the exercises can be specific towards the compensations seen in that individuals assessment.
Even when there are no serious warning signs presented in the individual assessments, ACL prevention can and should be implemented into workouts for groups of athletes or teams. There are many ways to incorporate these preventative exercises into a standard training plan, as long as coaches have an understanding of the basic aim of an ACL prevention plan. One important aspect to include is core strengthening since having a strong core can assist with balance and body control. Additionally, working on stability of the ankles and knees can help to insure stable landings. Instilling proper landing techniques is a big injury prevention step as this is training athletes to have good muscle memory habits as far as keeping the knees, hips, and ankles in line and controlling their center of gravity. Plyometrics with proper landing mechanics are proven to decrease incidence of ACL injuries. When implementing plyometric work it’s critical to understand that upon impact athletes are generating an extremely high amount of force that will be reverberated through their tendons, ligaments, and joints as they absorb the landing force. Being able to control this force is key and keeping in mind the landing isn’t always on two feet and coming straight down. Strengthening the major muscles evenly is also important, and not neglecting the glutes as they are a major mover that can assist in movement in every plane. Lastly, teaching athletes the proper way to cut and react to an action of stimulus is a big step to keeping them from hurting themselves even when there is no contact involved. Often this is where injuries such as ACL ruptures occur, as reacting in a game-like speed often creates sloppy movements with less body control which makes proprioception extremely critical.
One of my personal favorite drills for this reaction adaption are cutting drills that proceed various plyometrics. Whether it’s a depth drop, squat jump, or hurdle hops; getting the athlete to focus on landing in a position where they are able to quickly and efficiently redirect their momentum into a sprint or cut really emphasizes good body control. This also trains quick twitch muscle fibers and reaction time, as these drills can be progressed by using various cues from the coach to direct the athletes next move. Whether by sound, touch, or sight; learning to react not only quickly but safely and efficiently can improve sports performance while simultaneously implementing injury prevention techniques.