Are female footballers prepped to play?

North Melbourne AFLW player Ashleigh Riddell. Photo Jessiie Rees Dielenberg.
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As female Aussie Rules football continues to grow, so does the need for preventative injury research. Jessiie Rees Dielenberg reports.
North Melbourne AFLW player Ashleigh Riddell. Photo Jessiie Rees Dielenberg.

For Ashleigh Riddell, Aussie Rules football has always been a passion.

After growing up an avid Collingwood Magpies supporter and loving the time she spent watching matches with her dad, she couldn’t deny the thrill that came from the physical side of the sport.

“I liked tackling and doing everything the boys could do, it got my competitiveness out,” Riddell said.  

Riddell began her football career at the age of seven where she played in the NAB AFL Auskick Competition, however like a lot of young females in previous years, she was forced to walk away from the sport.

“It got to the point where you either quit playing footy or go find a girls side, which there wasn’t many at the time,” she said.

The AFL recently reported the rapid growth of females playing football has had a significant increase since the first professional season of its AFLW women’s league in 2017.

An adapted size-4 football for AFLW competition. Photo Jessiie Rees Dielenberg.                                    

The sport has seen an overall 14.2 per cent increase in female participation and women are now making up close to one third of a total 1,649,178 players within Australia.

As a young girl Riddell couldn’t have imagined that she could be drafted by North Melbourne Football Club.

As a result of the explosive popularity of female football in recent years, for women like Riddell this dream could finally come true.

In her first AFLW season, she was motivated to finally put her best foot forward on the big stage, however an unforeseen illegal bump during round two led to a distressing exit and an abrupt season end.

After she heard her ankle pop, she knew she was “done for the season”.

“Because of the nature of the competition being so short, if you get even a minor injury, you’re sort of done for the year,” Riddell said.

 After being tested and cleared for serious injury, it looked positive until the precautionary scans showed that the damage caused to Riddell’s ankle had led to a dreaded syndesmosis injury. 

“You hear in the media it’s the deadly syndesmosis injury, and everyone talks about it because they’re a pain to rehab

“I’ve had a couple of years where I didn’t get picked up or drafted and I’ve finally got an opportunity and to just get it taken away like that was obviously devastating,” Riddell said.

For female footballers like Riddell, this scenario is becoming all too familiar.

Throughout the 2019 NAB AFLW season, out of a total 47 reported injuries nearly half were leg related, including knee problems, hamstring injuries and ACL tears.

Among the season’s total reported, there were nine head-related injuries caused by concussion and severe head knocks. 

AFL Performance Analyst Cally O’Brien sees first-hand just how physically demanding the sport can be.  

“I cannot believe how aggressive and physical the men’s game is, when you sit literally on the boundary you can hear their bodies crashing into each other – it’s so full on, it’s not a soft game.

“The girls are attacking it the exact same way the boys are, if not even harder,” O’Brien said.

Working with both VFL and AFL men’s teams at Hawthorn Football Club, O’Brien tracks the player’s performance in trainings, on game day and monitors injury prevention.  

O’Brien says in-depth research into the differences between men’s and women’s bodies at an elite sporting level is crucial.

“It’s not that women can’t do what men can do, it’s just let’s make this safer for more people,” O’Brien said.

With the high rates of ACL injuries, tears and concussions endured by female AFLW players, experts agree it highlights the need for further Australian research into injury prevention.

Dr Mark Herceg, a leading researcher in concussion and neuropsychology in the US, has recently studied the correlation between the education that female athletes have surrounding concussion, and the behavioural patterns that followed those who had recently been concussed.

Dr Herceg is a member of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research (FIMR) at Northwell Health’s Phelps Hospital in New York.

In a recent release by the FIMR, Herceg stated, “if our data tells us one thing – it’s that female athletes are not willing to report their own injuries.

“Results indicate that although girls tend to demonstrate good overall knowledge of concussion, this notion does not necessarily impact their behaviour.

“There is this notion that females in general are more honest that males. While in many circumstances this may be true, in sports an athlete is an athlete,” Herceg said.

Dr Herceg said the public reaction to his latest research had been surprising, stating “the response has been muted by sports organisations”.

With the majority of existing concussion research currently based on US athletic statistics, Herceg reiterated that “it is very crucial to understand female concussions”.

“Education is a first step. But we need to change behaviour and societal pressures that play a role in all of this.

“Does risking further brain injury really matter? That’s a societal and personal question that needs answers,” Herceg said.

Senior physiotherapist at Sandringham Sports Physiotherapy, Brandon Kam, agrees that education on the dangers of female concussion is imperative for the safety of current and future footballers.

“Education programs are crucial and having enough support staff that are trained is crucial,” Kam said.

Despite this year’s slight decrease in AFLW concussion rates, Kam believes further skill development is required to lower this statistic.

“If you haven’t grown up in the system learning these skills over many years, then you’re probably going to be at an increased risk temporarily until you’ve learned to develop these skills,” Kam said.

In a bid to tackle the high injury prevalence, the AFL and LaTrobe University’s Prep-to-Play program was officially implemented throughout AFLW clubs during the pre-season this year.

LaTrobe University’s PhD Investigator into the Prep-to-Play program Brooke Patterson said the initiative has been in the works since the first season of AFLW in 2017.

“In order to develop a program that was developed with a careful thought process, it does take some time,” Patterson said.

Specially designed strength trainings in the Prep-to-Play program look to support the increased participation rates in the AFLW by integrating jumping, landing and rapid movement techniques to all training sessions.

For both professional and grassroots female football clubs the Prep-to-Play program focusses on the development of “their skills in tackling, ground ball gets and aerial contests”.

Physiotherapist Brandon Kam believes in the strength of programs such as the Prep-to-Play initiative.

“There’s evidence you can reduce the risk of ACL injury by 50% by doing these programs.

“It’s crucial to do and it really should be implemented across the board and not just by the professionals,” Kam said.

Ashleigh Riddell believes with programs such as the Prep-to-Play initiative being implemented from a grassroots level, these developed skills will benefit the future of the players who as a result will be at a reduced injury risk.

“It’ll get less and less when we get better at learning how to tackle.

“Obviously we can do it now but we’re only part time athletes, we don’t have the full-time capacity to learn how to really stick those tackles properly without going into our heads.

“We were never exposed to that when we played at grassroots levels so as long as it comes through, we’ll be fine,” Riddell said.

After a new Australian record was set for the most attendees at a domestic female sporting game, Riddell believes the 53,034 spectators that turned up for the 2019 AFLW grand final, is an indication that despite the increased injury risk, the sport won’t be slowing down any time soon.

“They’re now appreciating women’s footy a lot more and it’s only going to get better when we have had more games under our belts.

“I think it’s just going to go nuts,” Riddell said.