With UEFA's ongoing injury study in its ninth season, a solid database has been constructed which offers sufficient information for comparisons to be made and trends to be detected. Since its inception, the man who has coordinated the project on behalf of the UEFA Medical Committee is its vice-chairman, Prof. Jan Ekstrand, a vastly experienced campaigner in football medicine with more than 100 caps as Sweden's national team doctor.
"The study has certainly evolved a great deal during the last nine years," he said. "At first, it wasn't always easy to persuade the top clubs to participate because they were unaware of the benefits. Now the situation has turned round and more clubs are keen to join the 23 who are on board. Some of the founder members have been sending detailed information every month over the last nine seasons – and they don't do that just to be nice to UEFA. They have realised they get something positive out of it."
One tangible benefit of the pan-European study, which has logged more than 11,000 injuries, is that clubs are given benchmarks against which they can measure their performance in terms of medical care. As Prof. Ekstrand explained: "The clubs trust us and have total confidence in our approach to all the confidentiality angles. Then we are very meticulous in sending them feedback four times per season. First, each club receives a full statistical appraisal of their own injury situation. That's something they would normally have in their own system. But what the clubs don't have is information about how they perform in relation to other teams in other countries. Our reports break down the statistics into specific areas, such as muscular injuries, ligaments and so on, so that clubs can pinpoint their own strengths and weaknesses, and decide which areas they might need to work on."
The scheme, which initially focused on a group of leading clubs, has gradually been extended to cover the final tournaments of all UEFA competitions for national teams, including futsal and the last two UEFA European Women's Championships. "In the women's game, the injury risk is virtually the same," Prof. Ekstrand noted, "but the reasons for injury can differ. For example, if we look at contact in terms of energy mass and velocity, it is rational that the men's game can produce fractures while the women suffer contusions."
Nine years of data collection have generated interpretations which have been fed as debating points for the Medical Committee and UEFA medical symposia. "One of my personal opinions," Prof. Ekstrand continued, "is that, at elite level, it's not enough to give players a training programme designed to prevent injuries. It's more relevant to look at workloads. So I've grown to believe that it's not necessarily the medical staff who are the most important people when it comes to injury prevention. The clubs who have most consistently kept injury levels low usually stress the importance of close communication with coaching staff, general managers and even boards of directors."
Asked to name a wish for the future, and to review the last nine years, Prof. Ekstrand responded: "We have achieved targets but maybe we could involve more clubs in future. And there is one clear message we would like to convey – people often say the risk of injury is increasing, but nine years of data prove conclusively this is not the case."
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