Dear Athletic Support: When I was a high schooler in the 1980s, ACL injuries were almost unheard of, especially in younger athletes. My son is a 9th grader. Last football season, one of his teammates suffered a torn ACL as a result of a solid hit. This season, playing on turf, a teammate went down and tore his ACL without any contact at all. In your opinion, what has led to the rash of ACL injuries in youth sports? New turf fields that don’t give like grass? Never-ending year-round play wearing out these young still developing bodies? I must say, I’m more than a little concerned about my son’s safety. Is there anything I can do to better protect him?
—What’s Going On?
Dear What’s Going On: Since the 1980s, overall traction has improved by leaps and bounds across all levels of football. And it’s that simple fact alone that’s causing the rise in ACL injuries.
Now, before anybody goes tearing up their new turf field, let me be clear—it’s not just the turf that’s causing this problem.
Cleats are also to blame.
Back when you were playing, Astroturf was probably the only kind of turf around. This stuff is a far cry from what our kids play on today. Astroturf was basically concrete with a thin, green carpet laid out over it. Athletes who played on this surface wore special types of cleats called “turf shoes.”
Shoes were very different from the cleats kids are wearing today. There weren’t any spikes, but instead just a kind of bumpy sole.
Fast forward to today, and the spikes on cleats are longer than ever. Couple that with the fact that turf fields have amazing drainage systems, and you start to see why traction has increased so drastically.
The physics of the problem is simple: If a player’s cleats get stuck in the ground, and then his knee twists in a way a knee isn’t meant to twist, something’s got to give. More often than not, that something is the ACL.
If your son is going to be playing a majority of his games on a turf field, one thing you might consider is purchasing a pair of turf-appropriate cleats. An easy way to tell if a cleat will be a good option for turf is if the sole of the shoe is “molded.”
This just means there aren’t any screw-in spikes. The screw-in style of cleats have longer spikes and are much better suited for grass fields.
You might even consider getting your son a pair of turf cleats along with a pair of grass cleats. I realize this is not something every parent can afford for their child. But if we’re talking about safety, it’s the way to go.
Eli Cranor is a former professional quarterback and coach turned award-winning author of the BOOKS MAKE BRAINZ TASTE BAD series. Send questions for “Athletic Support” to firstname.lastname@example.org or use the contact page on elicranor.com.