The rate of injury to the knees of female athletes far exceeds that of male athletes. More than one injury is reported per ten female athletes at the collegiate level. In sports that require jumping and cutting, women report five times as many knee injuries as men. Several theories exist that explain why women suffer debilitating sports injuries more often than men, and one organization is committed to putting women athletes at the top of their game while minimizing the risk of knee damage.
Knee injuries do not affect only under-trained athletes, as one might think. Rebecca Lobo, of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, is one of the nation’s foremost female basketball players. She injured her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee in June of 1999, only 42 seconds into the Liberty’s season-opening game, and re-injured her ACL again this year during rehabilitation. The unfortunate sidelining of Rebecca Lobo and thousands of others like her points to the need for a training program that helps women minimize the risk of knee damage in competitive sports.
ACL injury is damage to the ligament that provides stability to the knee. It usually results from a twisting or impact injury. It can be an incomplete injury (sprain), partial tear (avulsion), or a complete tear. If an athlete’s muscles are not properly conditioned, jumping or cutting motions may cause a serious ACL injury.
The Cincinnati Sportsmedicine Research and Education Foundation has developed a six-week jump-training program, called Sportsmetrics, whose mission is three-fold: to significantly reduce the risk of serious knee injury among female athletes, to train these athletes to jump higher, and to improve their hamstrings to quadriceps muscle ratio.
The theories surrounding why women are more susceptible to knee injury include anatomy, hormones, and training. Some experts believe that women’s joints are more slack than men’s. Others think that estrogen has a direct link to female injuries, and still others argue that anatomical differences in areas such as the pelvis may cause injuries.
Research done by the Cincinnati Sportsmedicine Research and Education Foundation suggests that decreased neuromuscular strength and coordination around the knee joint might account for the high rate of female injuries. Apparently, males use their knee flexor muscles at three times the level of females when landing a jump. Also, they show that female hamstrings are weaker than male’s. Therefore, the Sportsmetrics program aims to increase hamstring strength and train women in how to maximize use of their knee flexors.
The women in the Sportsmetrics program are encouraged to participate at least two months prior to the start of their sport’s season. Athletes train three days a week in technique, fundamentals, and performance. They complete the technique phase first, with training in how to jump properly. The principles of proper technique include proper body alignment and posture, jumping straight up with minimal side-to-side or forward-backward movement, soft-landing while bending knees, and instant recoil in preparation of the next jump. The fundamentals phase focuses on building strength and agility, and the performance phase focuses on adding inches to vertical jumping. In addition, Sportsmetrics focuses on weight training and stretching of the upper body, trunk, and lower body.
Sportsmetrics has proven results—the program decreases the force of impact while stabilizing the knee joint and decreasing knee torques. In one study, the Cincinnati Sportsmedicine Research and Education Foundation reported a two to four fold reduction in serious knee injury among a group of 1,200 athletes in the Sportsmetric training program. This statistic means that not only can female athletes have longer sports lives, but they can also improve their game with a bit of professional guidance.