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Harnessing Tech to Create Bespoke Training Programs for Athletes With Injury Histories

In the sports performance industry, technology usually has one of two purposes: 1) athlete performance optimization or 2) athlete rehabilitation maintenance and monitoring. Yet it could be argued that rehab – and especially prehabilitation – is actually just a subset of athlete performance optimization. The idea: Support players in their recovery and training, helping them stay on their feet through every stage of the rehabilitation process – which you might say is the most basic building block in performance optimization.

In any case, as the vocation has become increasingly scientific and evidence-based, performance practitioners have seen their reliance on technology and data grow – along with, not coincidentally, the effectiveness of their efforts. As the tools of the trade become more accurate and dynamic, practitioners are more likely to have access to reliable and useful information for building customized training programs for their athletes – none of which are more critical for long-term health and performance optimization than those created for athletes with injuries.

The Importance of Player Tracking Before, During and After Rehab

Among the many types of injuries that plague professional athletes, damage to the anterior cruciate ligament – and especially ACL tears – is one of the most frequent and fearsome. What once had been a career-ender can now be repaired, rehabilitated and returned to play in as little as about eight months. Of course, the process can last a year or more for some athletes – and this assumes no physical setbacks or mental blocks associated with the injury.

Because sports have become big business and athletes are now considered (and even self-regarded) as assets and investments, the fine-tuning of injury rehabilitation programs can have enormous implications on the short- and long-term futures of not only an athlete but an entire organization. Practitioners may feel pressured to push players and accelerate the return-to-play timeline, but this can lead to setbacks and even long-term complications. At the same time, a conservative approach to rehab can translate to the closing of a window of opportunity (which, in sports, tend to be small and rare). In fact, research shows that a take-it-slow-at-all-costs rehab method can be counterproductive and yield lesser results than a more aggressive strategy.

How to get it right? In this case, performance-tracking technology that is proven accurate and offers the most comprehensive view of player movement is a practitioner’s best friend. Most athletes aren’t perfectly balanced; they can reveal small asymmetries in balance, flexibility, strength and more, so pre-injury knowledge of those inconsistencies can be critical to understanding an athlete’s expected capabilities – and limitations – during rehab. Establishing baselines, monitoring and comparing data across players and cohorts, and adjusting training in real time based on data feedback are the bedrock of effective rehabilitation programs.

Helping Athletes Overcome the Mental Barrier of an Injury

An injury – particularly a structural injury to a load-bearing area – can leave an athlete both physically and mentally traumatized. In some cases, it can take years for a player to trust the integrity of, say, a knee that has undergone ACL surgery. No two athletes are exactly alike, and the loads of different sports – or even the demands at different positions within the same sport – can vary widely. Throw in the international components of football (in which a player may change climates, training intensities and roles from those with their club team), and you have a soup of complexity that even good data and an evidence-based rehab plan can be difficult to overcome. Simply telling an athlete the risk of re-injury following an intelligently built program may not be enough.

But, thankfully, this is now the starting point. Practitioners have data that shows windows and ranges of optimal loads at different stages of a rehab program, and that information can be shared with the athlete. As part of Sportlight’s player-tracking system, our Fatigue Flag feature provides feedback that can raise red flags and help athletes reduce the risk of an ACL injury in the first place. The capabilities of technology are fundamentally critical to empowering practitioners to establish kinetic baselines, monitor the everyday movements of athletes and customize training programs that get players on their feet faster – and keep them there more frequently.

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