After some of the drama of the Carolina Challenge Cup and with the Charleston Battery’s regular season starting later this week, I decided to tackle soccer injuries, literally. I’m not referring to a specific tackling incident, and I don’t intend to discuss rules or proper techniques. I think the more appropriate direction with this topic is to demonstrate just how closely tackling and injuries are linked in the sport.
In a study in the December 2010 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine, McNoe and Chalmers collected data from a nationwide surveillance system of injuries occurring in community-level soccer across New Zealand over one season. They found that the most common activity from which injuries occurred during matches was tackling, making up 50% of the injuries. In practice, where one might assume that tackling would not be as significant a risk, tackling was associated with 20% of the injuries. Also interesting was the observation that the act of tackling had almost as high a rate of injury as did actually being tackled by another player.
Looking specifically at the injured player’s description of the injury, the authors found that 24% of injuries during matches resulted from foul play. A penalty or free kick was awarded in 37% of these events. And by far, the most common form of foul play was noted to be dangerous tackling (late, aggressive, and from behind), comprising 60% of foul play injuries.
A similar study published in the October 2008 issue of The American Journal of Sports Medicine looked at high school soccer injuries over a three-year period in the United States. Overall, the authors found that player-to-player contact caused 42% of injuries, making it the most common mechanism of injury. Tweet this statistic. In fact, injuries in U.S. high school soccer were three times more common in games than practices, probably related to the full-contact activities.
In response to a question about slide tackling in an “Ask a Soccer Referee” column, the U. S. Soccer Federation’s National Program for Referee Development offered its view. “In brief, there is only one way to slide tackle– safely. And when it is not safe, it is almost always so unsafe as to require a red card for serious foul play.”
Rather than preach about stricter rules for tackling, I would argue that education is more important. We should emphasize and teach both proper and safe ways to tackle at the youth and high school levels as well as when to use tackling as part of a proper defense strategy. If players could successfully defend without tackling as frequently, and then did it safely when they felt they needed to make a tackle, many fractures and contusions that we see resulting from tackles would never occur.
U.S. national team and Bolton Wanderers midfielder Stuart Holden is no stranger to injuries related to tackles. In a recent interview with ESPN.com, Holden talked with Leander Schaerlaeckens about his rehab from his most recent injury and his history of injuries. “People throw out the word ‘injury-prone,'” Holden told Schaerlaeckens. “But if you look at my injury list, they all came from tackles. I think I’m unlucky.” And if asked if his injuries would make him change how he plays, Holden responded, “I’m a tackler, that’s my game. The one thing I want to be more careful of is not going into completely stupid tackles, just be a bit smarter.”
While it would be easy to argue for changes to the sport to eliminate tackling or call for stricter enforcement of current rules, I don’t think that is necessary. Both at the professional and college levels, and more importantly, at the high school and youth levels, we must try to tackle as safely as possible to protect both the players being tackled and the those actually doing the tackling.