elitefts™ Sunday Edition

I’ve stated in an earlier article on improving athletic skill in a client that I refuse to partake in the new-found fad of speed, agility, and quickness (SAQ) drills with them. Is teaching maneuverability important? Of course. Everything I do in training clients is underscored by having immersed myself in studying the injuries that athletes incur long before I started teaching them to improve in skill.

In the realm of agility based injuries, none stand out more for me than the most dreaded of all—tearing one’s anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Given the potential of career ending realities, one would think more attention would be given to preventing the injury, which simply isn’t done in any sense of equality with the long distance running focus of the academic community.

The question for me is easy—how does such a catastrophic injury as an ACL tear occur 70 percent of the time as a non-contact injury? With athletes simply trying to stop or change direction alone or by themselves, by what definition of logic can we teach them to better protect themselves in contact with an opponent if current training models can’t prevent injury under such low stress maneuvers? What better proof is necessary to illustrate why agility training deserves closer scrutiny to any claimed science behind it?

I’ve read a number of accounts that puts the total in ACL tears to occur about two million times per year worldwide. It’s a fact that should sicken any trainer upon reading. Athletes at younger ages experiencing ACL tears speaks volumes as to why our training models deserve greater scrutiny. Simply trying to stop or change direction in any sport environment in no way should be the foundation of a billion dollar per year medical industry for its repair. Compounding the problem is that the training industry has no choice but to rely on the medical community to solve their sports injury issues. While we deem orthopedic surgeons as credible sources to study knee injuries, I see it as quite comical that the training industry and sports media seek out injury protection advice from those who earn their livelihood from performing ACL reconstruction surgery. In a court of law, that would be called a conflict of interest.

By what definition of logic would an orthopedic surgeon tell you the best way to prevent any knee injury? Isn’t that like asking a bartender how to quit drinking? It simply isn’t in any physician’s financial interest to teach you how not to need their services. It’s a choice for them between your knees or their condo in Maui. Guess who loses…

© Glenjones | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

For trainers unaware of the biomechanic precursors that are documented to increase one’s risk of an ACL tear, I truly hope you’ve also chosen to stay away from training female athletes completely. With women competitors (especially soccer players) having a 600 percent greater risk to ACL tears than males for the same biomechanic task, we should see the red flag that we need to improve our understanding of the training or movement abilities needed to better protect them.

Males and females have vastly different skeletal systems, and the differences in women's hip structure specifically requires a completely separate training program in agility teaching from the male gendered athlete. Yet, given the importance of gender specific training needs, the generic one-size-fits-all exercise plans from any training literature program easily spells out how little we know about injury prevention in female athletes. Current training models don't have any impact toward preventing sports injuries and are clear proof that another direction of performance training with better injury protection must exist. The primary question, of course, is where to find it.

This is why any stroll through your neighborhood bookstore will find shelves well stocked with titles under the subject of running. However, there’s an incredible inconsistency in their balance of choices. With literally 1,001 different books on how to run distances from 100 meters to 100 miles being so easy to find, how many of you have even read one book about teaching how to run on a playing field?

That unfortunate bias in coaching books for sports played on courts or fields under directional changing biomechanic functions, rather than running down the street, reflects a very subtle and negative impact to how the shoe industry pressures the academic community. The money is in distance running for the shoe industry and, therefore, with that recognition, incentive finds the subject to be the one of most research interest from the academic community.

Marathon runners don’t incur ACL tears very often, so once again academia sees no financial reward for dealing with the issue. Hence, there aren't any books written on the subject of rotational function skill. That research gap, unfortunately, has been filled with the quackery of those who have created SAQ training. With that reality, I better describe the idea as teaching the athlete how to move properly through agility testing drills with optimum speed and greater stability in protecting their knees under high stress load maneuverability environments. It also doesn’t leave much hope that participation in rotational sports movement is described for athletes in clinical jargon as being “unsteady locomotion.” That pathetically vague description leaves little doubt to how taboo the subject is for detailed study. The only question for me was obvious—what defines controlled locomotion in skill, and how can I develop that ability in any athlete?

What determines your stress load and ACL tear risks are the forces on your rotating body known as torque. For an athlete to execute a directional change of 45 degrees, a rotational stress equaling about 25 percent of his body weight is placed on the knees. In contrast, the best athletes of agility skill document torque loads of a mere five percent in body weight stress loads to execute the exact same maneuver. Can you explain the difference to me?

For those who coach football, soccer, or lacrosse, as well as the countless other rotational sports, you should be demanding greater emphasis in training for better injury protection. Without better guidelines for any competitive level the athlete participates in, how will the current levels of knee injury rates ever be impacted in benefit to the competitor? Unknowingly allowing players to participate in movement at most risk for ACL tears and the long list of lesser injuries is a story that deserves greater light on the issue.

What makes the world of agility skills fascinating to me is that the solution to rotational force injuries has been known in the academic community for over a century. My sadness, once again, is with knowing that the academic community hides the story. As I said in the first piece of this series, the porters of Nepal and the Sherpas of the Himalayas aren't only the documented masters of load bearing, being 25 percent more efficient than the women of Kenya, but are also masters of cutting and directional change in agility.

For centuries, these individuals have been counted on to carry the climbing equipment of those seeking to scale the world’s highest peaks. Appreciated for their load bearing skill, I openly question why so few have chosen to study their accomplishments given the solutions they offer toward solving the sports injury reality that few really want to address. While we stand to idolize those who can lift weight in a gym as models of strength, the ability to hold a weight over your head for a couple of seconds doesn't mean much to me. If the gold standard of strength training is to lift twice one’s body weight, I openly wonder why the porters of Nepal or the Sherpas of the Himalayas get so little attention.

My question is pretty simple—why is it that we think holding a weight above our heads for a couple of seconds is superior in skill to carrying the exact same ratio in weight load for an entire day? Not only are they carrying such amounts, but their worlds include the added stresses of climbing up and down the sides of mountains in much more dangerous environments. Facing extreme weather conditions, these load bearing professionals are compounded by the fact that they’re on unsteady and steep terrain for every step they take. In my world, such reality proves what optimum physical control is really all about. Yet they get absolutely no credit for their athletic accomplishments because they don’t do it carrying or handling a ball at any time during their treks.

I realize few sporting fields can be found on the side of Mt. Everest. However, the stress loads of locomotion for these high altitude and extreme environment masters also have very little history in ACL tears as an injury risk to their profession. They also execute cutting maneuvers under far greater angles than many athletes, all while managing added weight that no athlete ever carries in competition. They’re two completely different biomechanic equations, with the greater skilled getting no recognition for it. Their navigation skills of directional change are founded in the trail switchbacks which can have corners measuring almost a full 180 degrees in the opposite direction as they climb. Executing these cutting maneuvers while carrying the equipment loads they do has influenced these individuals to create movement skills that go far beyond the range of motion any shoe wearing athlete could dream of utilizing.

Their unique skill in foot placement is without doubt the most accurate model to build knee injury prevention skills from. The fact that experts in biomechanics can't explain the movement and load bearing skill is directly reflected in the quality of their SAQ training programs. In the end, that’s what it means to me. Our modern shoe in its most simplistic description is nothing more than a two-by-four piece of wood that has for centuries been duct taped to our feet. Even before we could talk, being shoved into the crates we called shoes as a baby left us alone to overcome its burden in figuring out how we’re supposed to move. In no way has that relationship been an improvement over our natural skills, which history says we once possessed.

For any athlete, the choice is quite clear—to follow a path that is proven to have incredible and unnecessary injury risks or step outside the proverbial box and ask what it truly means to be connected with the skills of being human. Only when our athletic community is strong enough to accept that our knowledge and opportunities for improvement will never come from anyone claiming to be an “expert” in athletic training can any real progress take place. The real experts are thousands of years old and have never taken a class in biomechanics in their lives. They didn’t run because it was on some bucket list of theirs or for other reasons based on personal entertainment values. The human experience of survival has a completely different set of rules than any sport competition. With absolutely no margin for error in any movement skill technique, few athletes today acknowledge that early humans didn’t have coaches, trainers, or gyms to reach the levels of performance they’re documented to achieve. For most of us, that fact gets lost by many in the quest for athletic perfection.

Those skills have existed for millions of years. They've been acknowledged for centuries and studied for decades. Yet they're never discussed today in training athletes. From ancestors who walked and struggled to survive, I hope this puts the Lance Armstrong doping debacle in a different perspective. Improvement truly can come from within if one is willing to read history books instead of running books.

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