As elite players in the UK return to play, it is essential to manage a programme that maximises the chance of performance over injury.
Alongside the specific risks and concerns associated with Covid-19 itself, players and coaches will be aware that the lengthy time away from the court carries a set of injury risks that need to be managed. Although not to be over-emphasised these risks are significant as shown by the higher than usual number of injuries reported in several sports around the world (incidentally all better funded than netball). These risks apply to all, including those who trained consistently through lockdown, as we did at London Pulse.
So how do we plan an effective return to play (RTP)?
I am looking at the situation in the same way I manage a RTP from injury and the system I use is what I call the problem solving approach. (You can read more about my approach to injury by clicking here). The way the system works is by identifying what injury risks exist for the sport + individual and what problems may underpin them. For example one problem underpinning the risk of ACL injury in netball is poor neuromuscular control. From here you identify a solution, which is usually a type of training but may also involve factors like load management, nutrition or recovery protocols. Central to this process is also identifying a measure of progress for the athlete. This does not always need to be a formal assessment and could simply be noted observations in training.
There are lots of problems to solve in the RTP from lockdown but in my opinion the majority are underpinned by the following:
Deficits in maximal strength
Negative changes in muscle / tendon architecture
Deficits in neuromuscular control
Deficits in aerobic fitness
Negative changes in range of motion - particularly at the ankle
Depending on the individual, the solution to each problem will be different and for some athletes one or more will not be an issue. For example, I have found those who have trained consistently through lockdown, even with just bodyweight or light resistance are not experiencing any real functional deficits in maximal strength. In some instances players have come back stronger.
For players with a combination of decrements in the factors 1-5, having an effective load management strategy while the S&C programme addresses these factors will be a major part of the process. Furthermore including neuromuscular control and mobility work in the on-court warm up will go a long way to accelerating these factors and also preparing the body to perform well on-court.
Designing Netball Practice
Coaches will be keen accelerate player technical and tactical readiness as fast as possible however this needs to be balanced against the constraints of an RTP. For most, a time-frame of about 6 weeks will be appropriate which is consistent with many RTP protocols from injury. This means players should target a return to full training intensity in week 6 of training. Leading into this I think the majority of issues can be managed by looking at each training task in the context of the following five factors:
Here are some brief thoughts on managing each one:
It is likely practice lengths will stay fixed, typically 2 hours, and shortening practice will not be advantageous to performance. Teams should look at breaking their sessions into a higher number of reps for each drill with plenty of rest. This will allow technical qualities to stabilise without overloading the neuromuscular system. Over time progress to having longer reps and less rest.
The obvious progression is to move from low to high intensities over a number of weeks. However I believe it will be important to include a small amount of high intensity work from week one, performed in a planned and controlled manner, initially without the ball and without competition. This intensity will prepare the body for what is to come in following weeks. Within each session perform high intensity work at the start, when players are freshest, rather than working up to a crescendo at the end.
Drills in larger court areas will carry the highest injury risk as they require players to decelerate larger forces in changes of direction and jump landings. Along with poor neuromuscular control this is probably the biggest injury risk. Start by selecting drills in small spaces and gradually extend the distances players travel each week.
Start with un-opposed work. Progress to opposed work once neuromuscular control is ready and players look confident in how they are moving. Stepping on another players foot and collisions are another risk here.
The obvious progression here is to re-introduce simple tasks and progress to more complex ones slowly across weeks. When there is a ball involved players will predominantly focus on the task, taking attention away from how they are landing, balancing, turning etc. Give players time to let their bodies catch up to their ball skills.
One more important factor that could easily be missed... ENJOY THE MOMENT. Whilst it is important to set KPIs and manage the process systemically I'd say this is not the time for an overly performance managed environment with loads of metrics flying around. The safety of all involved must be number one priority and there should be no lack of process here but from a pure training perspective lets not forget to enjoy the moment of being back on court. The factors I have highlighted above are really not difficult to manage and if your system is looking overly clunky it is probably too involved. Stay safe, stay sensible, progress when ready and enjoy the moment.
I hope this short article is useful for teams, particularly Prem teams outside the VNSL who will have very little support around them.
I would be interested in feedback from other coaches and S&C coaches from any sport. How are you managing a return to play?