Whilst this week sees the return of the Premier League after a 101 day COVID-19 enforced break, not all eyes will be in the results. With no sign yet as to when the 20/21 season will start and thus when pre-season training will return in earnest, there is a concern that the long period without meaningful strength and conditioning for players will lead to an influx of injuries.
Professional players bodies have been used to set training patterns around similar length seasons. The danger now is that the enforced break then ramp up in what is effectively a second pre-season will lead to an increase in injuries when the games start again in earnest.
One other consideration all top flight clubs will be aware of is the impact of timing for the next two seasons. It is likely the 20/21 season will not start for professional clubs until weeks later than the original August start date, which then impacts the preparation period for Euro21. The following year will see the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar taking place in the middle of our season, again causing a major disruption to the preparation period for the elite players.
But what about at the Non-League level? Lewes featured in the last game of the 2019/20 Isthmian League season when we beat Haringey Borough on the 11th March and with our season subsequently null and voided there’s been no opportunity yet to work with the squad in preparing for the new season. More importantly, we still don’t know when that date will be.
It is highly unlikely that our first Isthmian League Premier game will be in August, meaning that the normal pre-season period will run either longer than usual or not start until later. It’s a dilemma for coaches and players alike as to when to start working on a pre-season plan, something that first team manager Hugo Langton has been considering.
Under normal circumstances we have eight weeks off followed by a six week Pre-Season. That’s our reference point. We are currently entering our 14th week since we last trained and based on our original preparation plan for the start of the 20/21 season it would be 16 weeks since the players were last in meaningful action.
In normal circumstances of 8 weeks rest then 6 weeks pre-season, that’s a ration of 8:6. If we start pre-season in two weeks after a 16 week layoff then our pre-season will need to be 12 week, or until the end of September. Let’s be honest this isn’t going up happen.
So, assuming that pre-season will be the usual 6 weeks, it is almost certain as a result we will see a rise in the number of injuries, especially muscular (strains and tears) ones at most clubs. This is something that is likely to happen not just at our level but also in the professional game where the re-start pre-season has just been a few weeks. Whilst the pro clubs medical and coaches resources are world class, they cannot often prevent such types of injury.
As when we do return in the Non-Leagues, we will still do what we have always done – in many cases overload players, double sessions, 5km runs, army boot camps and more. Overloading players leads to fatigue, which in turn results in injury – you don’t need to be a Premier League Sports Scientist to predict that.
When the Bundesliga returned four weeks ago there were 14 individual muscle injuries on day one alone. That’s not including the injuries picked up on the return to training before the league games commenced again. One Premier League squad on returning to full training last month reportedly had 7 muscle injuries in week one. These are the full time players, with full-time world experts, in many cases, looking after them.
So we must think carefully about the effect of the timing of our pre-season at the part-time level of the game. We cannot be expected to just return to play with little regard for our players. We need a gradual build up, not a quick, short session and expect everything to be back to normal. Many players will tire easily and this will put them at risk of injury which will also affect their day to day jobs (especially if they work in a job that requires a high level of movement). Yes
Most players will have continued to try to keep themselves fit during the past three months, doing their own things, same as the German professional players were asked to do, but cycling 10km or running 5km is something very different to the physical demands of a game of football. It’s therefore vital that our leagues, when considering dates to restart the season, give clubs ample warning as to when that start may be possible and not just give little notice on the pretext that everyone wants football back as quick as possible.
There should also be a change in the rules of the game, just as we will see in the Premier League, with the use of substitutes. We need to be able to use all five during a game for at least the first few months, if not the whole of the 20/21 season to allow for players to be replaced who may be showing signs of muscle fatigue.
We must also ensure we don’t overload our players with too many games, both league and cup early in the season as we usually do. We have to allow players ample time to recover. If we play Saturday and Tuesday every week for first 4-6 weeks of the league season then we are not keeping our players safe from injury.
Player welfare must come first. These are extraordinary times and as a result call for extraordinary solutions including a full understanding from the FA and the Leagues on the impact of the timing of the restart of competitive football at our level.