When the U.S. Men’s National Team runs onto the field today in an elimination World Cup match against Belgium, doctors will track their every footstep, leap and dribble.
Using matchbox-sized GPS tracking devices, team physician George Chiampas can follow his players’ every move to help keep injuries at bay -- especially those that could keep his best out of the tournament.
The technology helps measure the distances his players run as well as their workload over time.
“That’s just one example of the data we use,” said Chiampas, who oversees one of the world’s best-conditioned teams. “We have a pool of physicians and sports administrative staff that look at that data. It’s something moving forward as technologies improve and you have access to those sorts of things.”
Since the team began playing the tournament, only one player -- striker Jozy Altidore -- has been kept from matches, said national men’s team spokesman Michael Kammarman. Greater regard for injury prevention has contributed to the lower incidence of match injuries across World Cup teams overall, according to data published after the 2010 tournament in a study led by FIFA’s Chief Medical Officer Jiri Dvorak.
“I am most proud that FIFA understood the value of medicine, that they support all the activity at least for the doctors,” Dvorak said. For this, “prevention is the bed crown.”
Variety of Devices
Sports medicine doctors are tracking player information through a variety of devices including some that can strap to the players’ head, according to Michael Terry, an orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern Medicine, where he is a colleague of Chiampas. Some can help identify how much REM sleep a player is getting, Terry said, while chest monitors can track breathing when sleeping. This is to help monitor fatigue, he said.
FIFA is now expecting fewer than two injuries per game in this year’s tournament, down from 2.7 injuries per match based on data ranging back to 1998, Dvorak said in a telephone interview from Brazil. The lower incidence was also attributed to less foul play and stricter refereeing.
On the U.S. team, there’s a staff of at least 10 doctors and coaches that are all responsible for player health, and they are measuring players’ heart rates, hydration, and movements during running, jumping and playing to improve efficiency.
“When you talk about injury prevention and the doctor using GPS, it’s part of the overall package,” said Kammarman. “All these technologies and tools didn’t exist in the past and they give you a much more specific picture. These tools aren’t just for injury prevention measures, they’re also for performing.”
GPS systems have typically been used for coaches to track positioning and they can also be used to track exertion and energy expenditure, according to Terry. That information combined with other factors such as cardiovascular efficiency and hydration can help staff work with players to minimize risk of injury.
U.S. striker Altidore suffered a hamstring injury when the U.S. faced its first game against Ghana and had to sit out on two other matches -- ending with a draw for the U.S. against Portugal and a loss against Germany. He will be available to play in the U.S.’s elimination match against Belgium July 1. Since then, the team’s injuries have included broken noses for forward Clint Dempsey and midfielder Jermaine Jones.
There are always going to be two or three injuries, said Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer Federation’s president. The harder part is losing multiple players in the same position.
“The World Cup is a grind,” said Chiampas. “You have 23 players and you know you’re going to have some injuries.”