Preventing Ankle Injuries In Soccer - A Comprehensive Neurological Approach

Ankle sprains are the most common injury in soccer and they account for more time on the sidelines than any other type of injury!

While the majority of ankle sprains only take 1-2 weeks to recover from, more serious injuries can keep you out of action for months.

Which is why, if you player soccer, you need to do regular work to reduce your risk.

And if you’ve sprained your ankles before, it's even more important, because we know re-injury rates are really high.

A quick google search will reveal hundreds of articles giving advice about preventing ankle sprains.

But I haven’t found one that comes close to covering things in enough depth.

Especially if you’re the type of person who frequently rolls your ankles. Or if you play on turf.

That’s why in this article, I want to teach you a more comprehensive approach, based on how your body creates and controls movement from a neurological perspective.

If you regularly work on the drills that I’m about to teach you, not only are you are going to massively reduce your injury risk.

You'll also become faster and more agile around the field!

Below you’ll find 4 videos that each teach you how to do a specific technique.

We are going to look at:

  • Proprioceptive Training
  • Visual & Vestibular Integration
  • Contractile Mapping
  • Neuromechanics

While all the drills are suitable at every age, the contractile mapping and the neuromechanics take a little more body control to do well.

So I'm going to teach you them in order from the most simple to the most complex.

For a comprehensive program you should train all four components.

But you'll get great improvements just from the first 2 videos.

Proprioceptive Training

Proprioceptive training should form the foundation of every injury prevention protocol.

To help you understand why, I want to quickly explain what it is.

Proprioception is how your body knows where it is in space.

Your ligaments contain receptors that detect movement. And as your body moves, these receptors send information back to your brain and spinal cord (nervous system).

Your nervous system then uses this information to decide which muscles to contract and which to relax, so you can accurately do the movement you're trying to do.

We know that you're most likely to sprain your ankle, either when you plant your foot to change direction, or when you land with your foot pointed and turned in.

Which is because both of these movements place a lot strain on the ligaments on the outside of your ankle.

Now what should happen, is as your ankle starts to roll outwards, the ligaments detect this movement and send a signal to your spinal cord.

Your spinal cord then sends a signal back to the peroneal muscles on the outside of your ankle telling them to contract.

If this reflex happens quickly enough, the muscle contraction stops your ankle rolling any further and you change direction or land safely.

If it doesn't happen quickly enough, or if the contraction isn't strong enough, the ligaments end up taking the load, which can cause them to become over stretched or injured.

Fortunately training proprioception is really easy.

All you have to do is mobilize your joints, to ensure the ligaments are sending information properly.

By doing this regularly, you can speed up the reflex, which drastically reduces the chance of spraining your ankle.

I also need to point out that when you sprain your ankle, the ligaments lose the ability to quickly send information. Which is why once you've sprained your ankle, you are much more likely to do it again.

If you're in the vicious cycle of repetitive ankle sprains, the drills in the video below will help you to break it.

But it isn’t just injured ligaments that reduce proprioception.

When joints get compressed, it also reduces the ligaments ability to send good information.

Because of all the changes in direction and because you kick the ball with your feet, soccer constantly causes joints to become jammed.

Which is why it's so crucial to the make sure the joints are moving properly on an ongoing basis. Ideally before and after training / matches as a minimum.

In the video below I’m going to show you how to do 7 essential joint mobilizations.

And how to make them soccer specific, which will also help to strengthen the ligaments themselves.

As you can see, these drills are simple to do. Which means you can do them anywhere.

I highly advise doing them before and after you play at a minimum.

In the video I'm doing them in in socks, but you should also practice them in the footwear that you play in.

Visual & Vestibular Integration

The next set of drills are going to look a little strange.

You're about to learn how to integrate your visual and vestibular systems with your proprioceptive system.

We've already looked at what the proprioceptive system does.

And you probably know what your visual system does. Although you might not be aware of how important it is for movement and injury prevention.

But my guess is you won't have heard of the vestibular system or know what it does...

Well... Vestibular is the fancy name for your balance system.

Your vestibular system lives in your inner ear.

When your head moves, your vestibular system sends signals to your brain so your brain can maintain postural stability.

For this reason, a well functioning vestibular system is essential for a strong stable core, which is one of the reasons it's important for injury prevention.

But there's more to it than that.

The vestibular system is constantly talking to your proprioceptive and visual systems.

Together they're like your body's GPS.

When they're all working and communicating well, you move efficiently and have a low chance of injury.

If there's a breakdown in communication, your chances of getting injured skyrocket and your performance plummets.

Now, I've already talked about how soccer can cause issues with proprioception.

Unfortunately the same is true for the visual and vestibular systems.

But this time it isn't kicking the ball, it's heading it. Any head contact causes the brain to rattle around in your head a little bit.

And in some people, this causes issues with the visual and/or vestibular systems.

This is probably why some players keep getting injured seemingly without reason.

It's also why visual and vestibular integration training is something that you should be doing regularly!

I know it sounds complex, but it's really simple once you know how. And you can easily do it as part of your regular training for soccer.

One word of caution though before I show you the drills.

If you have had a concussion in the past, it's highly likely that either your visual or vestibular system might have become compromised.

So the exercises below, should be very good for you. But with that being said, make sure you are cleared and safe to do them.

I'm going to start by showing you how to do a basic integration exercise called the vestibular ocular reflex.

This trains the reflex that keeps your eyes on a target as your head moves, which in addition to helping prevent injures, has other obvious benefits for your game.

After the basic version, I'm going to show you how to make it specific to preventing ankle sprains in soccer.

It’s a great idea to do these drills during warm ups and cool downs for practice sessions.

But I’d recommend testing them, to see how you respond before doing them prior to matches.

If you respond well, then they would also be a great addition to your pre match prep!

Contractile Mapping

Contractile mapping is a simple concept that is safe for everyone to do. But it takes a little bit of practice to do well.

The aim is to learn how to contract and create maximal tension in all of the muscles around your ankle.

If you lack the ability to contract certain muscles, your body is forced to compensate.

This reduces the movement options you have, which increases the chance of injury.

When we talked about proprioception, I explained that the spinal cord tells the peroneal muscles to contract to stop your ankle rolling.

And that if the contraction wasn't strong enough, the ligaments were placed under load.

Well contractile mapping is one of the best ways to make sure the contraction is strong enough to protect you.

The video below is going to teach you how create strong peroneal muscles.

It's also going to teach you how to train a couple of other muscles that will help bullet proof you against injuries.

And as an added bonus, getting good at these drills is going to make you much quicker around the field!

Doing these drills before you play, will make sure the muscles that protect your ankle are switched on and ready to go.

But before matches, rather than trying to create maximal tension, it's better to go for moderate contractions.

Neuromechanics

To finish with I want to show you how to do some exercises to help keep your nerves healthy.

I left these until last because you have to have a little body awareness to do them and younger children might struggle with them.

With that being said, they are probably the most powerful tool that I've shown you today.

The reason these drills are so powerful, is because nerves carry information to and from joints and muscles.

If the nerves are prevented from sending information optimally, proprioception is negatively affected and your ability to create strong muscle contraction is reduced.

Based on what you've already learnt, you can see why this increases injury risk.

To carry information efficiently, nerves need to move freely. Unfortunately, they can get stuck to stuff like fascia or scar tissue.

If you've sprained your ankles before, or if you've injured your hamstrings or groin, or if you've had knee injuries and surgeries; it's very possible scar tissue could be preventing your nerves from doing their job to the best of their ability.

Luckily, using neuromechanics drills, you can unstick the nerves. Enabling them to do their job properly.

These drills often result in immediate improvements in strength and flexibility!

In the following video, I’m going to show you how to mobilize 2 nerves.

  1. The tibial nerve
  2. The peroneal nerve

The tibial nerve supplies the muscles at the back of your lower leg & bottom of your foot, that plantar-flex your foot or point your toes down.

The peroneal nerve supplies the muscles on the front of the shin that cause dorsi flexion or pulling the foot upwards.

Because both of these nerves come from the sciatic nerve, the mobilization is pretty similar. All you need to do is adjust the foot position.

I’m going to explain this in the video, but when you do this sort of work, you want to go to a maximum 3/10 tension. It’s a nerve so don’t go cranking on it trying to get  a massive stretch!

Neuromechanics drills are good to do before practice and matches.

After practices and matches.

And pretty much any other time you want to improve how your ankles function.

Just make sure you stick to the rules and keep to a maximum 3/10 tension.

Recap

Ok, so I've given you a comprehensive set of tools you can use to reduce you chances of injuring your ankles.

Now all you need to do is put them into practice!

You should do the joint mobility drills before and after practices and matches. Simply spend 3-5 minutes making sure everything is moving properly.

For the visual and vestibular integration I recommend doing them before practices, but not matches right away.

The contractile mapping is something that you'll need to work on to get good at. Your goal isn't just to be able to do the movement, it's to be able to feel the contraction.

Once you've got the hang of it, adding in a couple of reps at a moderate intensity, will really get your ankles prepared to play.

Lastly you've got the neuromechanics drills.

They are great to do as part of your warm up. Great to do as part of your cool down. Great to do if your ankle or foot starts hurting for no apparent reason. And well... They're just great to do!

Providing you keep to a maximum 3/10 tension 🙂

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About The Author

Richard Brice is a Neuro Athletic & Performance Coach. He specializes in helping athletes optimize their performance by using applied neurology. Richard has a Degree in Science and football and is a former University Player.

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