Surviving contact with the ground

My 12-year-old son plays football in a 9-a-side team. In winter, they train on an astroturf pitch that is dry but hard. This group has been injury free so far, with no ACL or hamstring injuries over the last two seasons. That was until two new recruits joined the squad last month. They managed to fall on the hard turf and injured their wrists within the first week: both required hospital visits, one wrist was fractured, the other sprained. It is no coincidence that the newest players were injured. As with other types of injuries, we cannot eliminate falling injuries, but we can help athletes prepare for them.

» Related content: HMMR Podcast 270 explores preparation methods for contact with Andy Ryland.

Reframing the injury conversation

When it comes to injury and football, non-contact injuries dominate the conversation. The majority of studies are done on hamstring and ACL injuries, while contact injuries are barely mentioned in research. Even in contact sports, research focuses more on collisions than contact with the ground. Falls don’t have to be spectacular to cause injury. They can happen to anyone as well. Take a few examples from the legendary Steph Curry. Basketball is a sport where a lot can happen in the air causing you to land in unexpected ways. Here you can see some examples of wrist, tailbone, and hand injuries he’s picked up over the years simply from falling:

The mechanics of landing

Athletic development coaches often have a good understanding of the lower body mechanics of landing. Many use squats and jump patterns to help reduce non-contact injuries from jump landings. Yet rarely do we focus on how the upper body lands in such situations like above.

The principles of absorbing/reducing force that are used in softening landings with the legs apply just as much to upper body contact with the ground. Triple flexion of wrists, elbows and shoulders acts like a spring to lessen the force around a single joint and spread distribute it over a larger area. This is a skill and it gets better with practice and experience.

Training to prepare for ground contact

My number one teaching point is learning to roll when landing. Rolling dissipates the force across the whole body and also removes the player away from the contact area. Unfortunately, not all landings allow this. But, I am convinced that learning to roll and move increases the players’ spatial awareness and allows them to adjust their body mid-flight just as every cat owner knows how their pet can do this without training.

As we are not cats, we have to train. Coaches may balk at the thought of introducing more exercises they haven’t been taught or are uncomfortable doing themselves, but these progressions and ideas can be drip-fed into your existing sessions, staring with crawling and other upper body exercises on the ground. The starting point is to first get athletes comfortable moving around on the ground. The following simple sequence can be incorporated into a warm-up. The distance is short, the task simple enough:

Younger athletes benefit from a variety of movements and frequent switching of tasks to prevent overload and boredom. We often think of progression in terms of adding volume, but more effective is progressing by increasing the complexity of a task. The following PE lessons shows how simple exercises can be made more complex by changing the task:

Once play and exploration have been introduced and the players are comfortable on the ground you can introduce the specific coaching cues. This is an example from another PE lesson we put together:

Remember that the videos were designed to show one idea and are not a blueprint for how much you have to do in one session. Consistency doing 2-3 minutes of this type of work will prevent wrist soreness and discomfort. You can also use any number of methods to reach these goals. Parallel bars, for example, are another way of developing wrist strength and many other benefits. Simple progressions ensure a variety of movements that develop all round strength compared to something weight room exercises like wrist curls.

Progressing ground contact training

Once the players are comfortable with moving around on the ground, then transitions to the ground can be introduced as a next step. Here are three ideas on how to move training in that direction:

  1. A wall press up is a good start to introduce the concept of receiving force and bending the wrists, elbows and shoulders (no external cueing is required). Stand facing a wall and hold your arms outstretched: fall towards the wall and control the speed until your nose touches the wall. It’s a press up against the wall with a drop.
  2. Use a grass surface or a mat to start on the floor. Repeat the wall exercise but start in a kneeling position. Progress to a crouch (low squat) and then standing over time. I would only do 5 reps at a time and then change the exercise. Your players will be shaking their wrists.
  3. Once they can do a drop press up from standing you can introduce a walking drop press up, then slow running. This takes time and patience and there is no need to force it. Do not put a timescale on it because each player has to develop strength and confidence at their own rate.

Final thoughts

Many of the exercises described above benefit the players in more ways than just developing upper body strength. They improve balance, control and confidence. We can not prevent all injuries but we can reduce them by strengthening and teaching the players how to apply their strength.