ACC backing 'healthy heart of netball' with investment in injury prevention programme

ACC has increased its investment into the injury prevention programme NetballSmart to $3.6 million over the next three years to address the high rate of serious knee and ankle injuries in female players.

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ACC has put significant funding into NetballSmart to address the high rate of serious knee and ankle injuries seen on NZ's netball scene. Source: Breakfast

The NetballSmart programme focused on preparing players for the dynamic movement skills of the game, improving performance and decreasing injury risk.

Netball continues to be the biggest contributor to female sport related injuries in New Zealand, with an excess of 25,000 ACC claims, which came at a cost of $30 million in 2019.

A 10-year study showed an increasing number of teenage netball players faced significant time on the sidelines after suffering Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries.

The ACL stabilises the knee and injuries to the ligament effect women and teenage girls more than men and are common in sports such as netball, rugby and football which involve a lot of pivoting and twisting.

ACC statistics showed between 2008 and 2017 there was an increase of 120 percent in the number of girls aged 15 to 19 that had ACL reconstruction surgery.

ACC injury prevention leader Kirsten Malpas said ACL injuries had become more prevalent in 10 to 19-year-old females, where previously this injury was seen as a professional sports injury.

However, netball-related injury claims had reduced by more than 4500 over the last three years, which Malpas said was down to the success of NetballSmart.

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The Silver Ferns defender missed the recent series against England due to a ruptured Achilles. Source: Breakfast

"We've already started to see a bit of a plateauing out of the serious injuries. We know based on evidence that the NetballSmart warm up can reduce the chance of an ACL injury by up to 50 percent," Malpas said.

Since the start of the NetballSmart programme ACC figures show between 2016 and 2019 there was an 11 percent decrease in fractures and dislocations and a 13 percent decrease in soft tissue injuries.

Netball is the number one sport played by females in New Zealand with over 136,000 players, with more than 100,000 players in indoor netball in 2019.

Nearly half of the social netball players who suffered an ACL injury did not return to sport, according to ACC.

While most elite netballers, like new Silver Fern contracted player shooter Monica Falkner, do get back on court.

Falkner missed the entire 2020 ANZ Premiership season during a 15-month injury layoff to rehabilitate her ACL but made her debut for the Silver Ferns against the England Roses in October.

"An effective rehab can take up to 12 months and there can be quite a flow on effect if the rehab hasn't been done right that you get a repeat of the initial ACL injury or the other knee. It can be a life, or definitely game, changing injury and that's where we really want to work with the netball community to get as many players avoiding this," Malpas said.

Not just the professionals

Physiotherapist Suzanne Belcher who is a NetballSmart development officer for the Northern region said the programme took a different approach.

"There's very few injury prevention programmes that we've seen nationwide that seem to have had much effect on ACL, and not just in this country but across many countries for different sports."

She said the reason NetballSmart had success in the first three years was down to how much time was spent educating the coaches and consistent messaging from primary school players through to the elite sides.

"Beyond giving the resources out and hoping that the people would passively use them themselves often that is where most injury prevention programmes stopped," she said.

"I think the big difference with NetballSmart is we put a lot of push and funding and publicising into trying to educate coaches and players really early on in the programme."

NetballSmart's warm-up programme is not just for the top tier of players.

The focus over the next three years would extend beyond secondary school players or high performance to community players, Belcher said.

"We get a lot of social netball players who also injure themselves and because they are adults in their 20s they are coming out of work because they are injured and that puts an extra cost base to the ACC and the person themselves and it's all the little things they forget, like they might not be able to pick up there child if they can't get down to floor because they've done their ACL or achilles or they might not be able to get into work."

The importance of being game-ready regardless of the level the players were playing at should not be overlooked, Belcher said.

"We often find that people are almost embarrassed to warm-up or prepare themselves before they go on to a game they don't want to look like they're trying to be too smart or professional almost, so we need to start thinking about better ways to message that to them to say actually you can do a very quick warm-up just even on the spot and still be able to look after yourself.

"This isn't just about playing netball this is about being fit and healthy and enjoying playing sport whether it is social or competitively, so there is a bigger message now about, sometimes you can't afford to be injured, it can really effect your life and it can effect your enjoyment of just being fit and healthy in general."

Reaching all players

Maori make up a quarter of all traditional netball participation and the next three years NetballSmart will look to further connect with those players.

"We want to ensure that NetballSmart is relevant and engaging for all Maori netballers around New Zealand," Malpas said.

"We're constantly working with Netball New Zealand to hone the product and checking in with players that one they know what NetballSmart warm up is but also that they are actively practicing it and they believe in the importance of it."

Netball NZ chief executive Jennie Wyllie said the importance of the NetballSmart is hard to overstate.

"It was quite alarming a few years ago to see the high rate of serious knee and ankle injuries, it's been really pleasing to see the impact the NetballSmart programme is having in tackling this problem to help protect our players from serious injury," Wyllie said.

"We know we have more work to do and over the next three years of this partnership, and we look forward to continuing to work with secondary schools and also Maori netballers to ensure all of our players can keep playing the game they love, without the burden of season ending injuries."

NetballSmart programme manager Sharon Kearney, a former Silver Ferns physiotherapist for 16 years, said the programme takes a holistic view to preventing injuries.

"If we can teach our kids how to look after themselves off court, then they will succeed on the court," Kearney said.

ACC has been working in partnership with Netball NZ since 1997 and NetballSmart is the only sports programme to focus solely on tailored interventions to improve outcomes for females.