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Blades, Studs and Football Players’ ACL Injuries

Image from http://www.powerfootwear.com

One of my former players has been unfortunate enough to have suffered two ACL injuries, the second one as recent as last May. The first time was six or seven years ago during an Alaska Cup match at the lush fields of the Alabang Country Club.

The incident looked totally innocuous. He turned, fell and just could not get up. I initially thought that whatever it was could not possibly be serious. I was wrong. What visually appeared to be a totally harmless fall would eventually require surgery to have his knee patched up.

If I am being honest, at the time I was only vaguely familiar with the ACL tear that this player was eventually diagnosed with. I had coached football since 1982, and prior to this incident there was just one other case of a knee problem among all the players that I had coached that I thought significant.

In the nineties, a spate of back injuries forced me to rethink my strength training methods. After adjustments, the back injuries eventually went away. I never had to give knee problems a lot of serious thought because this was seldom an issue among my players.

However, since the Alaska Cup incident there had been two other cases of ACL tears among my former players; albeit these happened in separate incidents after I had retired from coaching.

For the benefit of those who are not into sports, the ACL is the anterior cruciate ligament. What this ligament does is to prevent the shin bone from sliding forward into the thigh bone. It has a counterpart in the posterior cruciate ligament, but injuring this is often not as serious as one to the ACL.

For many athletes, but most particularly football players by whom the lower parts of the body are used most in the game, tearing the ACL ranks high among the most career-threatening injuries.

This injury frequently happens when the foot is firmly on the ground and the front muscles of the thighs are forcibly contracted as the knee rotates. (Bioathletic) This was likely what happened to my player at the Alaska Cup.

Its occurrence is just 1.3% of all football related injuries and in fact is lower than the percentages for American rules football and men’s basketball. (Ireland Strength and Conditioning) However, ACL tears require lengthy layoffs from the game and this is what professional football players dread the most.

Doing a little sleuthing among these three former players of mine who suffered ACL tears, the only common denominator in all three cases was the use of football boots with blades underneath them instead of old-fashioned studs.

Blades are a fairly recent innovation among football equipment; and current football boots can have blades alone underneath them or a combinations of blades and studs. Old style football boots with only studs underneath them are still freely available in the market; and personally, I have always preferred these.

To be perfectly fair, I had worn blades before; and had thankfully been spared from injuries while doing so.

Going online to further my research, however, there has apparently been an ongoing debate about whether football players who wear blades are more susceptible to ACL tears or not. Regrettably, none of the scientific studies has yet been conclusive.

In fact, the more compelling argument against blades is that they pose more danger to opposing players than to those wearing them. Although made of plastic, the blades become sharpened by continuous contact with sand or bits of rock in the soil. Wayne Rooney, for example, needed 10 stitches after being slashed by Hugo Rodalleja’s boots in a 2012 match. (The Independent)

However, there is also evidence that blades on certain surfaces provide more torque than traditional studs. (Ireland Strength and Conditioning) Torque is a force associated with twisting motions. Studies have been inconclusive; but this among the arguments against blade technology appears to be the most compelling angle to further pursue.

Blades alone are apparently not entirely to blame. Instead, how they interact with the playing surface is just as crucial to whether a player is under threat of injury or not. Most ACL tears occur when the knee tries to turn but the foot holds on tight to the ground and will not let go.

Thus, the soles of the football boots come into examination. It is the added traction or grip provided by blades that some argue poses a threat to players’ knees, according to an article in the Science of Soccer Online.

Speaking as a football player who has used football boots with both studs and blades, I can say from my own experience that yes, boots with blades rather tend to grip natural grass more and make turning or pivoting fractionally more laborious especially during dry conditions.

These were the very conditions when my former player first tore his ACL in the Alaska Cup. My suspicion is that blades were originally designed for use on slicker and faster playing surfaces in advanced football countries; with probably no thought to harder surfaces in tropical countries that also have coarser grasses.

Apparently, blades are not advisable either for use on artificial surfaces. Indeed, as sheer bad luck would have it, the very same player who first tore his ACL in the Alaska Cup years ago would tear it again playing a few months back on the artificial indoor surface of Sparta. He just confirmed moments ago by text messaging that yes, he was wearing blades that day.

Of course, I reiterate that none of the studies undertaken on the matter has come up with a definitive correlation between ACL injuries and football boots with blades. Other factors also play into the equation such as proper warm-up and muscle strength.

When I come to think about it, however, it does seem compelling that ACL tears are injuries that I really came into contact with just in the previous decade when these bladed football boots had started to really become so much the fashion.

At any rate, I have always been old-fashioned where football is concerned and have always preferred round football studs, anyway.