Every four years, the World Cup is a global sensation, soccer’s premier spectacle. Thirty-two countries compete in the world’s most popular sport. The last World Cup in 2006 generated 73,072 hours of televised matches in 214 countries and territories during the monthlong event, according to FIFA, the World Cup’s organizing body, and more than 715 million people worldwide watched the final match between Italy and France. What sports analysts ask in 2010: Will Americans, who typically find soccer much less appealing than the rest of the world, watch?
By the time this issue of Evansville Living reaches our readers, the World Cup will be halfway finished, and at least one local man, University of Evansville assistant professor of physical therapy Phil Plisky, will have had his eye on a few matches. Plisky’s interest in soccer piqued three years ago when a former UE student, Skylar Richards, called. Richards had landed a spot as an assistant athletic trainer for the Columbus Crew, a Major League Soccer team in Ohio’s state capital, and he wanted his alma mater’s help.
He knew UE partnered with ProRehab, an Evansville-based physical and occupational therapy clinic, to create a 15-month sports residency program “similar to what physicians go through to get their specialized training,” says Plisky, ProRehab’s vice president of clinical excellence and residency program director. At any one time, two to four physical therapists work in the program (one of nine in the country accredited by the American Physical Therapy Association), and Richards wasn’t looking for their help caring for injuries. He needed aid preventing injuries for professional players.
Columbus, Ohio, is home to The Ohio State University, a 50,000-student urban campus, and Richards still pooled talent from UE. “The distance is a little bit of a barrier, but what the really neat thing is,” says Plisky, “with large universities in the Crew’s backyard, it’s a real feather in Evansville’s cap to go there to test them.” Richards knew Plisky uses advanced research techniques to determine an athlete’s risk for injury.
Take, for instance, the Y-balance test first used on seven local high school teams. The test, one in a series of several, requires an athlete to stand on one leg and reach with the other as far as possible in three different directions, revealing various body attributes — strength, flexibility, range of motion, and balance.
The residents look for differences in the left and right sides of the body. If there is a large difference between the two sides, the athlete is more susceptible to injury since the weaker side is compensated by the stronger side. If an athlete performs poorly on the tests compared to the other players in the sport, a greater risk of injury exists because the athlete must compete at the same intense level as his or her competitors with a body closer to breaking down. The series of tests enables sports residents to “not only help identify who’s at risk for injury but also prescribe exercises based on the results of that test,” Plisky says. The individual results are unique since most preventive programs are team oriented, he says; “that’s not necessarily going to help everyone if they don’t need that particular activity.”
UE residents perform the testing in a one-day period before the start of the season and then train the Crew’s athletic staff to test athletes and prevent injury once UE residents leave. Consulting continues throughout the season, usually via e-mail.
Shortly after UE sports residents began their tests, the Crew captured the 2008 MLS championship cup and boasted one of the lowest injury rates in the league in 2009. Of course, Plisky admits numerous factors contributed to the Crew’s championship. (Passion is one example; Columbus was one of the first American cities to erect a stadium as a primarily professional soccer venue). But, “if you can keep your players on the field, you can win more games,” says Plisky.
That success from the tests has other teams interested. “It’s a good combination of seeing all the research that the university and ProRehab put out on the subject and then by word of mouth by sports teams at national conventions,” says Plisky, who’s spoken at the Professional Soccer Athletic Trainers’ Society and the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine meetings and seminars. National Football League’s Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons, National Basketball Association’s Oklahoma City Thunder, and Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers have used the tests. Plus, international organizations, including England’s Arsenal Football Club and the Chinese Olympic team, administer these tests. The U.S. Army and the New Zealand military are among those finding the benefits of injury prevention.
For Plisky, those results spur the passion of his career. The onetime high school soccer center halfback from Highland, Ind., tore his ACL, an injury that ended his athletic dreams. “It’s just great to see that we can impact so many people internationally,” he says. “It’s a wonderful thing to help them keep their careers going.”