Watch: How to avoid injury when returning to play

By John Harrington

The challenge of returning to play for GAA players after a significant period of lockdown last year led to many suffering injuries from pushing themselves too hard, too soon.

That’s a reasonable assumption to make when you analyse the 2020 figures for the GAA’s player injury fund.

Even though there was no club action from March to June and from October on, there were 5,692 injury claims in 2020 which was only slightly less than the 2019 figure of 6,288 injuries.

This year male and female players in both codes will be faced with the same challenge – how best to get back into optimal condition once the lockdown ends and collective training can resume.

That’s where the ‘Be Ready to Play’ programme should prove to be hugely helpful.

A Coaching and Sport Science programme developed by the Gaelic Games Sports Science Workgroup in association with UPMC, official healthcare partner of the GAA and GPA, it will be delivered via webinars, website programmes, instructional videos and live online sessions.

The first of those webinars, ‘Preparing to train and play: How to decrease your injury risk’, was hosted by March 16 by Helen McElroy, a Chartered Physiotherapist who specialises in Sports and Exercise medicine, and can now be viewed in full at the top of this article.

Over the last 12 years McElroy has worked with all codes of inter-county GAA at senior level and is currently lead physio with the Tyrone GAA.

“We saw an awful lot of niggly injuries at the start of last year,” confirmed McElroy when asked about the incidence of injuries among Gaelic Games players after lockdown last year.

“We were expecting the bigger hamstring injuries and knee injuries because that was what we had learned from the resumption of the Premier League and Bundesliga.

“One thing that we actually saw was a lot of quad injuries because people weren't doing a lot of kicking before they returned to collective training. People hadn't really considered the kicking load when they were doing their own individual training and I'm not sure if that will be any better this time around because of the lack of access to pitches again.

“Not knowing the timescale of a return to playing is obviously a challenge for players and last year you had a situation where when players did know when matches would resume they pushed too hard too soon in terms of their training which led to injuries.”

The first piece of advice the McElroy has for players who want to do all they can to avoid injuries when returning to play this year is to be honest with yourself.

Given that no activity has been possible for January to March 2021 a further two-month extension of Injury Fund cover has been ratified by Coiste Bainistíochta.
Given that no activity has been possible for January to March 2021 a further two-month extension of Injury Fund cover has been ratified by Coiste Bainistíochta.

If you’ve spent much of the last few months on the coach rather than being active, then your return to training will have to be a gradual rather than sudden one.

“The big thing is that when you're starting off not to underestimate or overestimate your current baseline fitness,” says McElroy.

“We want people to honestly evaluate where their base line is and then progress from there. Everyone's baseline is going to be different based on their own circumstances. What you're doing and what your team-mate who has a gym in their house are doing are going to be two completely different things.

“We want everyone to get back moving within those patterns that they need for their sport and then progressively add load to that.

“That's where the Be Ready to Play programme comes in because it starts at that baseline and shows you how to progressively add load over the next 10 or 12 weeks.

“It's grand going for a run in the park, but that doesn't prepare you for what you need to be doing when you're playing Gaelic Football or Hurling.

“The acceleration, the deceleration, the cutting and turning and the contact are the things that we need to progressively expose players to before they can return to play.”

If you sustained an injury towards the end of last season and have presumed that the period of rest since has sorted it out, then McElroy says you could be making a mistake.

“Previous injury is the biggest risk factor for injury,” she says. “So, for example, if you had recurring groin injuries last year you might not have stressed that part of your body since.

“So in the webinar I'll be giving a few wee tips on how to try manage those older symptoms and work on a base level strength and what to look out for, what are the worrying signs of these injuries coming back.

“Some injuries will have responded well to rest since players were last playing matches last year but if someone had a tendon injury last year that they played through the season with and have done nothing about it since, it's more likely to rear its head if you've done nothing over the winter.

“The likes of hamstring and achilles tendinopathy, those injuries that are a bit more chronic in nature that you might have played a short season with, they will need to be addressed and addressed now.”

'Be Ready to Play' is a season-long Gaelic Games Coaching and Sports Science programme suited to players of all ages and levels. 
'Be Ready to Play' is a season-long Gaelic Games Coaching and Sports Science programme suited to players of all ages and levels. 

The ‘Be Ready to Play’ programme is an impressively holistic one that will cover games-based coaching, athletic development, psychology and wellbeing, nutrition, performance analysis, skill acquisition and biomechanics, physiotherapy, and injury prevention.

One of the messages that McElroy will be giving in her message is that in the same way there are many factors that impact optimal athletic performance, there are also many factors that can give Gaelic Games athletes the best chance of avoiding injury.

“In the webinar I'll be talking about the importance of nutrition, the importance of recovery, the importance of sleep, and the importance of looking at your own schedule and making sure that you're not getting overloaded,” she says.

“The nutrition and recovery aspect of it is massive. That's difficult at the moment in lockdown when you might be working from home and home-schooling and all of that so it’s not easy try to get your recovery right.

“A lot of our day to day structures have been taken away from us and everyone's routines are a wee bit up in the air so trying to get a bit of that back now is important as we hopefully ease out of lockdown will be nice.

“People are a little bit lost for guidance at the moment because they don't have any structured training or any kind of plan or anything. So they're looking to the internet or asking what team-mates or county players are doing.

“The Be Ready to Play programme has a youth aspect, an adult aspect, and an advanced adult aspect and have progresssions and regressions for every exercise so it is geared to helping our players find what their base line is and to start there so it is properly structured.

“Because if you don't have a structure you will go 100mph and you will go far too quick.”

You can register for the ‘Be Ready to Play’ programme HERE.

The next live educational webinar takes place on Tuesday March 30th at 7pm and the title of the presentation from Fiona McHale, John Doyle, Niall Corcoran and Eileen Glesson is "Technical Coaching for Hurling Camogie & Football"

Click on this link to join on the night: