As the head athletic trainer for the Milwaukee Torrent and a certified athletic trainer at the Froedtert & MCW Sports Medicine Center, Ryan Koeberl watches soccer differently than most people. He doesn’t watch the ball. His eyes are trained to focus on where the ball was and where it’s headed.
“As an athletic trainer, you’re not watching the game,” said Ryan Koeberl, MA, LAT. “Your eye is on the whole field because 90 percent of the time soccer injuries do not happen where the ball is. You’re watching your players before and after they have the ball and before they come into contact with another player. It’s all about gathering information so you know how to react if an injury happens.”
Koeberl ranks the top four situations when the risk of injury in soccer increases:
1. The corner kick
“My highest level of stress in a game is when there is a corner kick,” Koeberl said. “It is an unpredictable moment. On a given corner kick, you have 16 to 18 players in an 18 yard box, all with the same purpose – get to the ball first.”
Typically during a corner kick, the ball is played in the air. Several players from opposing teams jump up for the ball from multiple directions, all of them targeting the ball with their heads. It is a risky moment for head injuries, which is why Koeberl created a drill based on those motions for the Torrent to practice.
“During our warm-up, players are paired up and jump at the same time, in a header position, to get shoulder contact,” Koeberl said. “It simulates a game-like scenario and prepares their bodies for the shock of contact.”
2. When the competition level drops off
Some players don’t have the experience to know how to protect their bodies or how to recognize a potentially dangerous play. A mismatch in team skill level can be dangerous because players may take risks resulting in injuries that could have been prevented.
“If we are up 4-0 and the other team is still trying to score, I get nervous,” Koeberl said. “An inexperienced or less skilled player may go in for a challenge or a slide tackle instead of positioning themselves in a better place to get the ball.”
3. Tied, minutes from the end
A game that is tied and near the end can get scrappy, which increases the likelihood an injury will happen.
“Teams are trying to push more players forward,” Koeberl said. “Instead of having your back line holding the midfield, everyone is pushing up to attack and you have more players in a tighter space.”
4. Returning to play after an injury
Anytime one of Koeberl’s players is recently recovered from an injury, he keeps a closer eye on them.
“We are always diligent with our warm-ups, but we are extra cautious with players who have recently been released from an injury,” Koeberl said. “Hamstring injuries are the most common soccer injury so we spend a lot of time on preventive exercises.”
As an athletic trainer for the Milwaukee Torrent, it is Koeberl’s job to work with the team physicians and coaches to keep the athletes healthy.
“I focus on injury prevention through muscle activation and recovery,” Koeberl said. “If you can prevent injuries, the team and the players’ performance will be at optimal levels.”
Lower extremity injuries, particularly in what Koeberl refers to as the “hip complex” (hamstrings, quads, glutes and groin) are very common in soccer players, but there are specific evidence-based injury prevention exercises.
Koeberl designs his strength and conditioning workouts based on a popular program for both professional and amateur teams, FIFA 11+. It involves specific running, strength, plyometrics and balance exercises to activate players’ muscles. Koeberl also supplements with contact exercises.
“Everything we do is in motion,” Koeberl said. “It’s all about preparing the muscles for the game, and we do this by simulating the motions they’ll experience on the field.”