When players become injured or are unable to participate in training, typically the medical staff requires them to strengthen, stretch, and rehab the injury individually. When they are eventually cleared to play, many coaches drop them straight back into training or a game, cross their fingers, and hope for the best.
As coaches, we like to think that only the medical staff is responsible if an injury setback occurs, but even at the highest levels of the game, the medical staff and the coaching staff tend to point fingers at each other if something goes wrong with a returning player. Just look at the circumstances surrounding Bayern Munich’s longtime head doctor, who quit while under criticism from manager Pep Guardiola.
Even though it may seem that a player suffering an injury setback is out of our hands, there are a few crucial principles that we can follow to ensure that the return to play for the player is as seamless as possible, without risking their health in the process.
As an initial note, before any of the following stages can occur, the player MUST have completed full rehab with the medical staff and been given a green light to participate in training. The duration of each stage listed will vary depending on the player and the severity of the injury.
Stage 1: Participate in Training at 75% |
This is the very first stage and allows the player to regain basic football motions, movements, and actions. Depending on the type and severity of injury, this step may be long or could be skipped entirely. A player recovering from an ACL tear will definitely take longer than a player with an ankle twist.
Stage 2: Full participation in Training |
NEUTRAL player ONLY
Coaches typically skip this step, but it is extremely important for a number of reasons. Following a return to doing football actions in Stage One, we are now gradually progressing to a return to full sessions, but with one very important rule:
The player will ONLY play on the attacking team.
Why is this so important and typically overlooked? As an attacking player, the player is only expected to complete 1/3 of the actions that a normal player would. We have eliminated defensive actions AND transition actions, which naturally will make the session less intense for this particular player, without decreasing the intensity for the group.
This is exactly what we want, because it allows a return to football actions and decision-making, but at a tempo that will not overload the player to the point of re-injury.
Equally as important to note is that when a player is making attacking actions, they are in complete control of where to run and which actions they will take.
As a defender, they are controlled by what the team in possession does, which could lead to a player performing an action that their muscle is not quite ready to handle. Initially, it is better to give the player complete control over their actions.
Stage Three: Full Return to Training | Attacking, Defending, and Transition
The player has shown that they can handle attacking actions without suffering a setback, so we can now begin to return them to their regular intensity within the training session.
One word of warning; as we are increasing the intensity by adding more actions, the player may not be able to go the full duration of the session.
We must always try to balance intensity and duration, especially with injured players. If a player was able to go 75 minutes as a neutral player, we can expect that they might only be able to handle 60 minutes as an attacking, defending, and transitional player. The player is ready to leave this stage when they can train for 75 – 90 minutes without issue.
Stage Four: Full Return to Matches |
Maximum of 45 minutes
As previously mentioned, we need to be very mindful of varying intensity and duration. While the player may have been able to train with the team for 90 minutes, the intensity of a training session will never match the intensity of a match. As a result, we want to make sure the player can handle a shorter duration at the highest intensity, before exposing them to a longer duration.
Many coaches rush this step and immediately return the player to the full 90 minutes. While sometimes this can work, it is much smarter to expose the player to 50% of maximum duration before pushing them further.
Stage Five: Full Return to Matches |
Maximum of 60-75 minutes.
Stages Four, Five and Six are largely dictated by the fixture list of the team.
If the team has a match on the Sunday, a 2nd match on the Wednesday, and a final match on Saturday, we can maybe expect the player to play the following:
0 - 45 minutes on Sunday
0 – 45 minutes on Wednesday
60 – 75 minutes on Saturday.
As studies have shown, it takes the average player 48 – 72 hours to fully recover from a match. Returning players take longer to recover from matches than their teammates, so we must keep this in mind.
Fatigue is what we want to avoid here, because this is what can cause the nervous system to fire at the incorrect time, resulting in re-injury. As a solution, consider implementing SoccerPulse’s Player Monitoring system,which allows players to give direct feedback on their level of fatigue.
Sometimes, it is better to hold the player out entirely from the Wednesday match and give them extra time to recover.
Stage Six: Full return to Matches |
If we’ve reached this stage and the player is successfully able to complete 70 minutes in a match, we can push them to the 90-minute threshold.
Bear in mind that this depends on the player, so communication between the player, the medical staff, and the coaching staff is key.
With all of these stages, the main theme is that we don’t try to separate rehab from the game itself, and throw the player to the wolves as soon as their medical rehab is completed.
In my mind, the full rehab isn’t completed until the player can play 90-minute games without suffering an injury setback.
If you follow the steps outlined above and stay attentive to your players’ needs and their bodies, the chances of suffering an injury setback will drop dramatically.