How to Come Back From a Soccer Injury Without Re-Injuring Yourself

Feb 3, 2020

It’s safe to say the most frequently asked question a doctor hears from an injured athlete is this: “When can I start practicing again?” 

It’s a fair question. To stay on the sidelines is an athlete’s worst nightmare, second only to being told that “you will have to quit playing altogether”. 

However, it’s crucial for soccer players (and athletes in any sport) to rest and allow recovery instead of rushing back to the pitch. It goes without saying that rushing to practice before you’ve healed is counterintuitive as you are more likely to make things worse. 

A Troubling Consensus: Players Don’t Give Soccer Injuries Enough Time to Heal

A recent study examined data on 303,736 matches among UEFA Champions League teams. The data uncovered was troubling but not surprising. 

The main fact discovered was players were returning to matches with little practice and the same amount of play time; despite coming back from an injury. And thus, these players had a higher risk of re-injury. 

In fact, certain players who returned to regular play after sustaining moderate to severe injuries had an 87% higher injury rate. The injury rate per 1,000 hours of competition was 46.9 for injured athletes in their first match back from being sidelined, compared to 25 per 1,000 hours across all other players and matches reviewed from the study. 

The study also revealed the rate of muscle injuries was far higher for athletes just returning compared to other players studied. For injured soccer players coming back from an injury, the rate of muscle injury was 24.6 per 1,000 hours, compared to 9.5 hours per 1,000 hours.  

With demanding schedules and an increasing volume of games, players are often returning to matches before putting in six or more training sessions, something that is so important to rehabilitation. The study revealed that after each practice session prior to an actual match, the rate of re-injury can drop by 7%. 

Returning players simply aren’t given enough time to rest and recover. This means that they’re playing at an intensity that’s too much for their weakened muscles and tissues. 

However, this issue isn’t reserved for the professional stage. Amateur and youth leagues are pushing their players to return to the field before they’re ready, as well.

Returning from Soccer Injuries: A Balance of Expectations & Reality

Not only are injuries physically painful, but they can damage a player’s confidence and give rise to negative emotions, too. The psychological aspect is often far more crippling than the injury itself. It’s also powerful enough to drive players to return to play too soon. After all, no serious athlete wants to feel weak and vulnerable. 

While these feelings arise for professional athletes, these feelings can occur for young recreational players as well. However, here are some wise words to remember: your child is not playing in a professional league. Missing one practice, game or tournament is not going to ruin their long-term sports career. 

In an era where young players are playing too many games already, a little more rest from the pitch can actually boost your child’s enthusiasm and appreciation for soccer. It can also reduce burnout for injured players, give them time to recover and help them see that the game is just that - a game, not a job.

Of course, this isn’t to say that you and your young superstars should have a lax attitude towards the game or competition. The point is to focus on their wellbeing and health when it’s needed. If you do, this will naturally lead them to take the right steps and length of time to return safely to the game if they suffer a sports injury. It’s ultimately an exercise in managing expectations. 

  • Listen to Your Physical Therapist - Soccer injuries often warrant physiotherapy - strict rehabilitation at that. It’s crucial for an injured player to follow their treatment plan exactly as prescribed. This means doing the exercises they’re told to do and avoid the ones they’re cautioned against. Also, players should consult their physiotherapists as to when they can step up the intensity of their practice. 

  • Focus on Core, Strength and Flexibility Training - A sidelined player will likely lose core stability, flexibility and overall strength. The good news here is that despite their injuries, a player can still regain their strength and flexibility. This may include static and dynamic stretches, light callisthenics and machine or resistance band workouts.  

  • Listen to Your Body - Pacing is key if a player is to return to the pitch without re-injuring themselves. So in addition to listening to a therapist or doctor, a player needs to pay attention to how they feel and make a judgement call about when they feel well enough to play. This is tricky for very young players because they may not have a high level of mindfulness yet, but medical testing (ie. imaging/scans) can help parents and coaches assist these younger players to make wise decisions. 

  • Mind Your Mental - As we mentioned before, the emotional aspect of injury can be more crippling than the injury itself. With that said, it’s vital that young players learn how to manage their emotions, especially the negative ones that could push them to return hastily. Furthermore, too much negativity and anxiety can cause a release of excess stress hormones that will only stall their recovery. Reassurance that injuries are temporary will give kids the confidence that they will return to their previous form. Also, exposing your young players to things like meditation, positive affirmations and visualization (mental imagery) can help them maintain a healthy mindset towards their injury. 
    • Don’t Forget Soccer Protective Gear - Young players should be doing this already, but if they’re not, they should make it a goal to use as much soccer protective gear as possible. They need to protect their injured area as much as possible (such as wearing a soccer protective headgear after sustaining a head injury). Players should also use accessory protection (ie. wrist/finger-taping under goalie gloves for injured fingers). Remember, even after the pain, stiffness or range of motion improves, the site of injury is still healing and vulnerable to further impacts. 

  • Pay Attention to their Nutrition - Here’s a motto for young players to remember - the better your meals, the faster you’ll heal. Nutrition is a vital yet overlooked component of injury recovery, but it shouldn’t be. An adequate intake of vitamins, nutrients and minerals will speed up recovery. With that said, diets rich in protein will prevent muscle and strength losses, while Omega-3 fatty acids will reduce inflammation. Foods rich in zinc will promote faster wound healing while vitamin D and calcium-rich foods will protect and preserve bone mass. Nutrition is no doubt tricky to handle, but you can always consult a nutritionist if it gets too challenging.  
  • Healing from Soccer Injuries - Take One Step at a Time

    It’s true that players need to push through a bit of discomfort when trying to recover from soccer injuries. With that said, it’s still a waiting game. Despite the constant and sometimes gruelling schedules of soccer tournaments, it’s important to keep in mind that the body needs time and space to heal from a soccer injury. 

    Rushing the process will only keep a player sidelined longer. So do your utmost to instill a sense of patience and a focus on wellbeing in your young players. Doing so will condition them to return only when they’re truly ready to return.

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