Is it time for a new breed of professional sport role model?

Monash Blues

Monash Blues

By Professor Caroline Finch  

As usual, the just-completed AFL football season was characterised by exciting clashes, exemplary individual performances and, for some players, significant injuries.  During the final series, there was increased pressure on participants to play even harder and to push their physical boundaries even further. We witnessed the adverse consequences of these demands when some players were injured and unable to play in further finals. 

Injuries are not restricted to professional sport.  However, we know that injury rates are much lower in community sport and the nature and severity of those injuries is different to those in professional sport. We also know that a lot can be done to prevent these injuries from occurring in the first place or, at the very least, to reduce their severity.

Now that the 2011 footy season has all but ended, many people will begin thinking about summer sports participation for themselves or their children. We all want our children to be more active and getting them to participate in formal sport is a great way to achieve this. What’s stopping us? One thing standing in our way is injuries: our kids’ most prominent role models are professional players who sustain major injuries and need to have significant time away from the game for medical treatment and recovery. What message is this sending to the community?

One in four parents stop their children from playing certain sports. The children most affected by these decisions are boys, those from non-English speaking backgrounds and those who want to play football. This is despite overwhelming evidence that participation in sport has significant health, physical and social benefits that far outweigh the risk of injury. 

But if parents only source their information about sports injury risks from the weekend professional game coverage and individual player injury outcomes, is it really any wonder they are scared for the safety of their children? It’s even less surprising when you consider that many also receive no responsible information about how sports injury can easily be prevented. Most people hear nothing about what the professional players do to help them stay uninjured.

Injury prevention professionals well know that most injuries, even in sport, can be prevented with adoption of some simple measures. Being well-informed about injury risks and prevention, wearing the appropriate protective gear, following coach advice and guidance, participating fully in physical training sessions, having exemplary on- and off-field behaviour and complying with advice from medical professionals are all things players can do now.

Professional players know this as well. Surely it is now time for sporting bodies to promote high-profile role models who can advocate for injury prevention, and talk about what they do to reduce their own risks. Imagine the power that professional sportspeople and injury prevention advocates would have on the future generation of players, and their parents. What kid would not want to be just like those role model players and also do what they can to reduce their risk of injury?  What parent could say no to their child wanting to play safe footy? 

It is just one small step further to then picture the overall public health benefits of this across Australia, with less need for medical services to treat sports injuries and improved health benefits because kids are more physically active and less obese.

Professor Caroline Finch is the Head of the Australian Centre for Research into Injury in Sport and its Prevention, within the Monash Injury Research Institute at Monash University.