Ghana-born Baba Mensah, a centre back of the Ilves major league team in Finland, was injured in March last year.
“I was reaching for the ball in a quite ordinary situation when my knee bent. No physical contact was involved. At first, I thought the injury was nothing serious, but when I went to see a doctor and had an MRI scan, it turned out I had ruptured the anterior cruciate ligament in my knee,” Mensah says.
The injury interrupted Mensah’s season; he did not end up playing in any of the matches.
“This was my first major injury, which I took quite hard when it happened,” Mensah says.
The project, launched by the UKK Institute and the Finnish Football League Association in February, charts the injuries and illnesses of major league football players in 2019, and risk factors as well as the impact of injuries on training and playing.
There is little scientific knowledge on this topic in Finland. In 1993, a study tracked injuries during one season in the major league.
“We follow up on all injuries ie both acute and overuse injuries. In addition, we observe the overall health of the players,” says Research and Development Manager Mari Leppänen who is in charge of the study.
All Finnish major league teams are involved in the study. The players receive a weekly survey asking which and what kind of injuries and/or illnesses they have sustained in the previous week.
“If a player has been injured during the week, we ask for more information about the situation where the injury occurred. We also want to know the extent to which disability or illness affects training and playing,” Leppänen says.
The teams’ physiotherapists receive weekly player-specific reports as well as monthly summaries of the players’ general health.
“We are looking into the possibility of continuing the monitoring for several seasons,” Leppänen notes.
Mensah’s rehabilitation went really well. The regular recovery time from similar injuries is from six months to a year, and Mensah was fit to train fully already six months after his injury.
“The mental side is really important. An injured player should remain positive and invest fully in rehabilitation,” Mensah says.
He admits to being frustrated by the rehabilitation at first. As the other players headed to the football field, Mensah followed a precise rehabilitation plan.
“The starting phase of the rehabilitation programme is really important as one must have patience and only take baby steps. It was sometimes frustrating. I cannot praise our team’s physiotherapist Heli too much; I call her my mother. She motivated me and was always there when I needed her,” Mensah says referring to team’s physiotherapist and physical trainer Heli Rekimies.
At the beginning of June, Ilves tops the major league leader board. It has only lost one of the games it has played. Mensah has played the full minutes in eight matches.
Heli Rekimies says that the team is currently in perfect health.
“I must knock wood because we do not have any injuries and everyone is able to play at the moment. We have had two muscular injuries this season and no injured hamstrings for a while,” Rekimies says.
According to Rekimies, footballers’ most common injuries are soft tissue lesions that heal in a few days or weeks.
“Injuries in the groin area and hamstrings are the most common ones. Sprained ankles occur a couple of times each season. More serious injuries are fortunately rare,” Rekimies says.
The training rhythm of a professional team is carefully planned: the players’ strain is closely monitored throughout the season while it must also be ensured that they get a sufficient amount of restorative and rehabilitative training.
“The training must also be individualised. For example, the amount of restorative training depends on how many minutes the player has actively played in the previous match,” Rekimies explains.
The cornerstones of the players’ fitness are laid in off season training. However, their skills are also developed during the season proper.
“We do a lot of mobility training because it prevents injuries and has an impact on force generation. Players also frequently go to the gym. Good force generation does help in the matches, but it also prevents injuries. These features must be continuously developed,” Rekimies says.
The Ilves team also utilises technology in training. By monitoring the players’ heart rate, coaches get feedback on whether training is happening on the correct level of strenuousness.
“We are using a heart rate monitoring system which provides data on eg how fast the players’ heart rate increases and decreases during exercise,” Rekimies says.
In order to enhance recovery, the team uses a cold compression system, which intensifies recovery by the means of pressure and cold temperature.
“Some players are really keen to use the device. A few days ago we joked that we should have a number system for managing the queue,” Rekimies says.
Players use the device after each training session, and the team takes it along to away games.
“We take it with us so that the players can start the recovery process immediately on their way home,” says Rekimies.
According to Leppänen, studies have shown that the right kind of training reduces players’ injuries.
“There is a lot of good research on this topic. However, it is not yet known how widely and effectively the studied training practices are used in Finland,” she says.
Leppänen mentions the FIFA 11+ Injury Prevention Programme as a well-functioning training method. Proper warm-up prepares the player for training by activating and strengthening the exercise trajectories and the muscles needed in the exercise.
“There is good evidence on the benefits of functional strength training. Studies show that proper training would prevent more than half of football injuries. Movement control, muscular fitness, mobility, coordination and balance are means to avoid injuries,” Leppänen says.
During rehabilitation after the injury, Mensah learned much about what is required of an athlete.
“I am now stronger and lighter than before the injury. Because an injured player cannot practice normally, special attention must be paid to diet. I now understand better what a good diet and adequate rest means for an athlete,” Mensah says.
In addition to football practice, Mensah undertakes mobility and strength exercises independently. Regular stretching is also part of his training regime.
“I do mobility exercises before and immediately after every training session and at the end of every day before going to bed,” Mensah says.
The injury has taught Mensah the meaning of mental resilience.
“Injuries are part of football. However, players must understand that injuries do not necessarily mean the end of their career. After investing fully in rehabilitation, a player can return to the field even stronger,” Mensah explains.
The research results will be disseminated via the Healthy Athlete Program. The website of the program and its social media channels provide a wealth of scientific knowledge on athletes’ health and injury prevention as well as videos of injury prevention exercises that studies have found to be effective.
The UKK Institute is a private research and expert centre in the field of health and sports. The Institute’s mission is to promote the health and physical performance of the population by the means of reducing immobility, sports injuries, and leisure time accidents as well as increasing physical activity.
The board of the Institute comprises representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, the Ministry of Education and Culture, the City of Tampere, and Tampere University among others.
The UKK Institute is an expert centre of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health in the field of health.