Sports science has come a long way over a short period of time in its approach and success rate around repairing and healing certain acute athlete injuries. Structural trauma that once typically ended athletes’ careers in an instant – particularly to that of load-bearing joints, such as an anterior cruciate ligament – is now addressed with surgery, rehabilitation and specialized training that routinely returns a player to the pitch or field in a matter of months.
Where the field still has plenty of room to grow in this area, however, is in its understanding of acute injury prevention. Athletic performance professionals know full well that stop-and-start and change-of-direction movements in certain sports (football, basketball, American football, etc.) impart heavy and frequent loads on athletes’ joints and connective tissue. But while many teams have begun to track player movements and attempt to manage loads in an effort to reduce athletes’ susceptibility to injury, most clubs are still learning what to do with collected data. It begs the question: Can more injuries be mitigated via the measurement of change of direction?
Parsing Out the Injury Issues
In the Sportlight Technology white paper “Change of Direction Metrics,” the rationale for tracking these movements is made clear: “Alongside their importance in performance, changes of direction have been noted as associated with the onset of fatigue in football and other team-based invasion sports. Similarly, these actions have been observed as key elements of heightened injury risk moments, such as an ACL rupture.”
Sportlight account director Dr. Paul Caldbeck echoes this sentiment, while noting that change of direction isn’t simply “associated” with both player fatigue and injury risk, but that one may have a causal relationship with the other.
“The main cause of knee injuries like an ACL is a lack of control and body awareness at a particularly key moment,” says Caldbeck. “It’s when an athlete has to react and make a decision, there’s something in that decision making, due to what we believe is probably fatigue, that causes the body to go into a position that it can’t tolerate.”
Why Measurement Matters
One of the main difficulties of injury prevention is the difficulty in determining whether an injury is the direct result of an acute kinetic trauma – a hard or awkward change of direction, for instance – or rather caused (or at least influenced) by an accumulation of many smaller traumas that may have compromised the integrity of the affected area.
“If we see that the athlete is doing something differently today, that’s potentially indicative of issues further down the line, because so many injuries in sport come from chronic issues rather than necessarily an acute incident,” Caldbeck says. “An ACL appears as an acute injury, but there might be decremental, chronic issues over the course of the season that have led to that point.”
These issues may manifest as slight drop-offs in speed or acceleration, but they could also include slight changes in an athlete’s gait or balance. All of them can be almost impossible to determine by the human eye, but even legacy movement-tracking systems have limitations because they lack granularity and aren’t conducive to everyday measurement.
The Sportlight system, driven by highly accurate LiDAR technology and designed to help clubs track players every day – from the game pitch to the training grounds, using the same tech – offers the consistency and precision of measurement to pick up on slight changes in performance over time.
“And then we can put that type of data into AI systems, machine learning systems that can detect abnormal changes in those patterns, which we can then feed back to the practitioner, and they can make decisions based upon that,” Caldbeck says.
“If we can start to see that those patterns have deteriorated over time, we can begin to be predictive, get ahead of the curve and make front-end decisions that are preventive, rather than having to fix an injury after it’s occurred.”