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TYPE Opinion
PUBLISHED 05 December 2022
DOI 10.3389/fspor.2022.970152
OPEN ACCESS
EDITED BY
Chris J. Bishop,
Middlesex University, United Kingdom
REVIEWED BY
Mo Gimpel,
Red Bull Soccer, Austria
Lasse Ishøi,
Copenhagen University
Hospital, Denmark
*CORRESPONDENCE
Mark Armitage
mark.armitage@canaries.co.uk
SPECIALTY SECTION
This article was submitted to
Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Sports and Active Living
RECEIVED 15 June 2022
ACCEPTED 24 October 2022
PUBLISHED 05 December 2022
CITATION
Armitage M, McErlain-Naylor SA,
Devereux G, Beato M and
Buckthorpe M (2022) On-field
rehabilitation in football: Current
knowledge, applications and future
directions.
Front. Sports Act. Living 4:970152.
doi: 10.3389/fspor.2022.970152
COPYRIGHT
©2022 Armitage, McErlain-Naylor,
Devereux, Beato and Buckthorpe. This
is an open-access article distributed
under the terms of the Creative
Commons Attribution License (CC BY).
The use, distribution or reproduction
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the original author(s) and the copyright
owner(s) are credited and that the
original publication in this journal is
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academic practice. No use, distribution
or reproduction is permitted which
does not comply with these terms.
On-field rehabilitation in
football: Current knowledge,
applications and future
directions
Mark Armitage1,2,3*, Stuart A. McErlain-Naylor1,4,
Gavin Devereux1, Marco Beato1and Matthew Buckthorpe3
1School of Health and Sports Sciences, University of Suolk, Ipswich, United Kingdom,
2Performance Services Department, Norwich City Football Club, Norwich, United Kingdom, 3Faculty
of Sport, Allied Health and Performance Science, St Mary’s University Twickenham, London,
United Kingdom, 4School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University,
Loughborough, United Kingdom
KEYWORDS
field-based, rehab, soccer, injury, re-conditioning, prevention
Introduction
Injury reduction remains a hot topic in professional football due to the economic and
competitive implications of time lost (1,2). Current strategies to reduce injury burden
involve either reducing primary injuries through prevention-based strategies or lowering
the risk of secondary injuries when they occur. It appears that primary injury reduction
strategies are largely effective (3,4), and might have supported reduced incidence
across the past two decades (5,6). Strategies concerning re-injury risk, however, are
less than optimal, particularly when concerning recurrent and/or high-grade muscle
and ligament injuries (1,5). Whilst return to play (RTP) rates for such injuries are
high in elite football, players often return with heightened risk of re-injury and may
experience lower performance levels, especially after severe injuries such as anterior
cruciate ligament (ACL) ruptures (714). Injuries are thought to occur due to a complex
web of determinants (15), with previous injury remaining one of the most reported
risk factors (16). Re-injuries (i.e., to the same location) or subsequent injuries (i.e., in
a different location) typically occur early in the RTP process, suggesting players might be
returned too quickly for sufficient tissue healing, or they are inadequately prepared for
RTP demands (6,1618). The role of previous injury as a risk factor for future injury can
be mitigated through effective rehabilitation (19). As such, improving RTP practice and
processes appears warranted to improve outcomes after certain injuries (e.g., high-grade
muscle/severe ligament injuries).
There is a lack of consensus on effective rehabilitation for such injuries, with current
evidence suggesting that players should embark on a criterion-based process through a
series of stages (20). These typically include early-, mid- and late-stage rehabilitation,
followed by a RTP continuum, involving on-field rehabilitation (OFR), return to team
training, return to competitive match-play and finally a return to performance (Figure 1)
(2126). Recently, there has been an increase in translational research published to
support football medicine departments with their late-stage rehabilitation processes,
specifically that of OFR (21,22,26,27). OFR as a service is not new with numerous
practitioners establishing unpublished frameworks before evidence-based practice and
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Armitage et al. 10.3389/fspor.2022.970152
FIGURE 1
A return to sport process involving a gradual transition from
rehabilitation to performance training along a continuum of
OFR, RTT, RTC, and RTPer. ORF, on-field rehabilitation; RTT,
return to training; RTC, return to competition; RTPer, return to
performance. Modified and re-printed with permission from
Buckthorpe et al. (21).
load monitoring technologies existed. Scientific developments
however have facilitated two separate published frameworks
for OFR, which use competency-based continua to provide
evidential structures to support long-established practices (21,
22,26). Despite improving clarity, such research is currently
restricted to expert opinion and/or case studies. Although this
is a complex topic with numerous inherent challenges, future
research should attempt validation of such frameworks.
The purpose of this article is to (i) review injury incidence
literature to assess the prevalence of re-injuries and postulate
OFR as a potential tool to mitigate future risk, (ii) consider injury
aetiology and the complexity of OFR, (iii) describe existing
OFR frameworks, and (iv) offer future directions related to the
development of OFR in professional football.
Injury outcomes, (re-) injury
epidemiology, and the importance
of on-field rehabilitation
Understanding injury occurrence, healing timeframes and
RTP rates are vital when designing, implementing, and
evaluating OFR frameworks. When injuries occur, they are
often categorised based on their severity, or the potential
for time loss. Most injuries are mild (7 days), and overall
RTP rates from all injuries are high, however those returning
from severe injuries (>28 days) such as ACL ruptures
often face long absence, elevated re-injury risk and reduced
performance levels (1,9). Overall, injuries have reduced by
3% per year over the past 18 years, with muscle injury
rates remaining unchanged (5). Although this should be
considered in the context of greater frequencies and intensities
of matches nowadays, muscle injuries remain a concern
given their susceptibility to re-injury (17,28). Indeed, injuries
involving musculature of the lower limbs remain notable
(15%) (1).
Ekstrand et al. (1) reported ACL re-injury rates at 6.6%,
which is in-keeping with others (29), but less than the 18%
reported by Della Villa et al. (9). However, it is perhaps
severity and not incidence which is of concern for ACL
injuries, with a mean absence of 205 days (1). Although, re-
injury rates were low in the study of Waldén et al. (29),
five out of the nine re-ruptures occurred during the final
phase of rehabilitation or before the first match, and all others
were within the first 3 months after the first match. The
timing of these re-injuries suggests an increased risk during
on-field activities and reinforces the importance of effective
OFR frameworks.
Injury aetiology and the complex
nature of on-field rehabilitation
All injuries are related to an overload of some type, whether
they involve trauma (i.e., contact), mechanical failure (i.e.,
non-contact) or a combination of both (i.e., indirect contact)
(30,31). They occur when the stress and/or strain on the
body tissue exceeds the maximal strength or failure strain of
that tissue (32). Injury prevention models have traditionally
been based on a reductionist view (15,33) that simplifies
multifaceted components into units, attempting to identify
relationships and sequence events (e.g., isolating the mechanism,
site, type, and treatment of injury) (34,35). In reality, injury
involves complex interactions between numerous factors, and so
seemingly comparable situations may yield different outcomes
(15). Contributing factors might include any combination
of neural inhibition, selective muscle atrophy, alterations in
fascicle length, strength deficits and/or increased susceptibility
to fatigue, amongst others (36). A holistic approach to
rehabilitation is therefore required to accommodate the complex
and individual nature of the process. OFR is considered a
vital component, due to the ecological validity offered by
manipulating various training stimuli to stimulate tissue loading
in a manner which more closely resembles that experienced
during training and competition (37).
Football matches are now played at a greater frequency and
intensity than ever before, which increases the physiological
and mechanical demands on players (5,38). This emphasises
the need for players to be appropriately re-conditioned to RTP
(18). Despite research warning that an imbalance in “load”
between rehabilitation and match-play might increase the risk
of re-injury (17), specific information is sparse (18). Whilst any
relationship between “training load” and injury is likely to be
associative and not definitively causative (39), clear aetiology
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Armitage et al. 10.3389/fspor.2022.970152
is yet to be established (40). Researchers and practitioners are
interested in exercise volume and intensity, and the external
and internal “loads” associated to these (41,42). To improve
understanding, there is need for agreement over terms and
technology used to describe and measure discrete outputs. For
now, multiple independent metrics are required during OFR
(e.g., running distance and velocity; step frequency, intensity,
and symmetry; heart rate; and rating of perceived exertion),
considering both the psycho-physiological and mechanical
aspects of load-adaptation pathways (38,40,43).
Existing return to play frameworks
and the developing role of on-field
rehabilitation
To aid decision-making during rehabilitation, Creighton
et al. (44) developed a three-step model: Step 1—evaluation
of health status in consideration with medical factors; Step
2—evaluation of participation risk in consideration with
sport risk modifiers; and Step 3—decision modification in
consideration with decision modifiers. Step 1 is arguably
the most clinically important because it indicates the state
of healing and thus enables risk-assessment decision-making.
These decisions are also task-specific (Step 2). For example,
the risk associated with an upper limb injury for an outfield
player will differ to that posed by the same injury to a
goalkeeper. Finally, non-medical factors (Step 3), such as time in
season, external influences, and conflicts of interest, need to be
considered to provide context to decision-making (44). Whilst
this model provided a framework to inform decisions based on
the assessment of multiple risk factors, concerns were raised with
regards to limitations and implementation (45).
The model was modified accordingly to form the Strategic
Assessment of Risk and Risk Tolerance (StARRT) framework
(45). The structure remained the same, but the terminology
was updated alongside the ordering of contributing factors.
Although the StARRT framework was included in the
2016 consensus statement on RTP (46), the statement
suggested combining biopsychosocial factors with continued
application and evaluation of the framework. Where possible,
shared decision-making between the player, practitioner and
appropriate others should also take place (47). Practitioners
should use the available evidence and their own experiences,
combined with knowledge of the individual, specific scenario,
and club philosophy, to shape their RTP protocols (48). An
evidence-based approach to decision-making has recently been
enhanced for football through the development of two specific
OFR frameworks (21,22,26).
Buckthorpe et al. (21) offer a four-pillar structure for
practitioners to plan their on-field progressions: 1—movement
quality; 2—physical conditioning; 3—sport-specific skills; 4—
training load. Restoration of movement patterns should be
addressed first, before increasing metabolic and mechanical
demands and then integrating neurocognitive and perceptual
challenges to enhance specificity. Once the player has increased
confidence in the injury site, often in one-to-one environments,
they can begin re-introduction to team-based interactions
and the club’s conditioning model. The four pillars have
been additionally described as contributing to a five stage
OFR process (after ACL injury): 1—linear movement; 2—
multidirectional movement; 3—soccer-specific technical skills;
4—soccer-specific movements; and 5—practice simulation (22).
Whilst this framework was designed as an educational piece
to support practitioners in structuring their OFR processes,
currently there is little evidence of usage or effectiveness.
Taberner et al. (26) offer a similar five stage framework,
eloquently titled the control-chaos continuum: 1—high control;
2—moderate control; 3—control to chaos; 4—moderate chaos;
5—high chaos. Progressing sport-specific physical conditioning,
technical skills and movement qualities, practitioners are
encouraged to systematically manipulate volume and intensity
whilst increasing uncertainty of action. This framework has been
applied through a series of elite player case studies including a
male tibia-fibula fracture (49), female ACL reconstruction (50),
and male semimembranosus reconstruction (51). Whilst the
stages remained the same for each case, durations were altered
to reflect the specific needs of each injury.
Both frameworks position OFR as competency-based and
not just time dependent (21,22,26). However, there remains
a lack of validated competency criteria for RTP protocols (1).
Whilst both frameworks act as a reference guide for practitioners
and facilitate future research processes, they are based on
existing theory, experience, and inductive reasoning (52).
Experimental studies utilising hypothesis testing to promote
validation are now needed (53).
Jimenez-Rubio and colleagues attempt to provide some
evidence by using an expert panel to gain agreement for an on-
field readaptation programme following a hamstring injury (54),
and a rehabilitation and reconditioning programme following
an adductor longus injury (55). These authors performed a
follow-up study with those who completed the hamstring
protocol and reported that not only had the injury site fully
recovered, but following rehabilitation players could withstand
greater match and training demands, with a reduced risk of
future injury (56). Whilst this highlights the importance of
OFR and improving evidential structures, the 13-item OFR
programme (54) is quite prescriptive and could be challenged
given the individual nature of injuries and responses to
interventions. Conceptual frameworks such as the control-
chaos continuum and four-pillars of on-field rehabilitation
may offer greater flexibility. In essence, frameworks should
support and not dictate decision-making, with practitioners
and researchers empowered to continually evolve their practice
and understanding.
Regardless of which conceptual framework is used, it is
recommended that players progress systematically to develop
load tolerance of the injury site and restore sport specific
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Armitage et al. 10.3389/fspor.2022.970152
qualities (21,22,26). Whilst the control-chaos continuum
places a greater emphasis on cognitive demands as progressions
become more “chaotic”, both frameworks promote “load”
progression/management. Improved understanding of the
“load” requirements of specific drills/activities within each stage
and potential progression targets between stages, would support
the development of either framework.
Areas for future research
Although the frameworks use different terminology,
they both offer stepwise OFR progressions to practitioners.
Agreement in terminology would be useful to enhance
application, as would research into specific “load” responses to
explore which drills typically fall into which stages. Currently,
there is no substantial advice on how to specifically measure
and progress OFR (57). Whilst progressions within and
between sessions and stages in the available frameworks
appear rational, they are yet to be empirically established.
Training “load” appears to be a key determinant in effective
OFR (18,21,22,26,58), therefore the development of specific
sessional content (i.e., drill level analysis) should further support
practitioners in their decision-making (59). As OFR is not
a new concept, current practice with regards to drill/activity
selection (including input from technical coaches who should
be active drill designers) should be explored to identify
potential gaps and enhance application of future findings
(27). These drills/activities can then be investigated using
a range of monitoring techniques (e.g., heart rate, global
position systems, inertial measurement units, and rating of
perceived exertion, amongst others) to measure some of the
psycho-physiological and mechanical demands. Currently,
knowledge of causality between training “load” application and
successful RTP outcomes is lacking. Future research can use
the conceptual frameworks mentioned within this article to
generate testable hypotheses relating to the outcomes of specific
OFR drills/activities associated with the specified stages.
Summary and implications for
practice
Injuries in football, particularly involving muscles and
ligaments of the lower limbs, remain problematic, with the risk
of secondary (re- or subsequent) injury remaining high. Whilst
these often occur within the first few months, risk can remain
elevated for years to come. Although epidemiological data are
supporting practitioners in targeting injury reduction strategies,
previous injury remains one of the largest risk factors for future
injury. This highlights the importance of effective rehabilitation
protocols when injuries occur, with OFR promoted as a
vital bridge between clinical rehabilitation and return to
performance. Two conceptual frameworks offer progressive
stages for OFR. Whilst these frameworks appear conceptually
sound, empirical evidence in this area is lacking. Researchers
should work together to find agreement and improve scientific
understanding. Drill level analysis, using a range of monitoring
techniques to reflect psycho-physiological and mechanical
demands, would offer greater insights into within and between
session progressions, in turn improving understanding and
application of current OFR protocols. Findings should be
critically appraised and applied by practitioners to facilitate
continued development of evidence-based practice.
Author contributions
MA was responsible for the concept and writing of this
paper. SM-N, GD, MBe, and MBu provided supervision and
feedback throughout. All authors contributed to the article and
approved the submitted version.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could
be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
Publisher’s note
All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the
authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated
organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the
reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or
claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed
or endorsed by the publisher.
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