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A Case for Gender-Tailored Football Pitches!

Introduction


The rise of women's football to global prominence is marked by increasing fan engagement, enhanced media coverage, and elevated investment levels. This heightened visibility underscores the sport's evolution from modest beginnings to a major player on the international sports stage. Alongside this growth, significant advancements have been made in addressing the specific needs of female athletes, exemplified by innovations like Nike's Phantom Luna boots and Ida Sports' bespoke footwear. These developments, designed to meet the specific anatomical and biomechanical needs of female athletes, demonstrate a deliberate effort to tackle gender-specific challenges in sports.


Yet, the surge in anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries among female football players reveals a significant oversight in the current approach to athlete health and safety. This issue underscores the necessity for a holistic strategy to address one of the sport's most critical challenges. The complexity of ACL injuries in women's football is compounded by a combination of physiological, biomechanical, and environmental factors. Traditional responses have often addressed these factors in isolation, without considering their interconnectedness. Recently, there has been a shift towards a collective and informed effort among the sport's stakeholders to confront these challenges (Hunter, 2024). This movement signifies a crucial turning point in women's football, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive approach that accounts for both intrinsic and extrinsic risk factors. This includes everything from physiological traits and biomechanical patterns to the impact of playing surfaces. 


Past discussions have highlighted the importance of footwear in mitigating injury risks through improved player-surface interactions. Expanding on this, the characteristics of the playing surface itself emerge as a critical factor. Evidence indicates that the quality and, more specifically, certain characteristics of the playing surface may contribute to the complex interactions influencing the likelihood of ACL injuries. This may advocate for gender-tailored football pitches that could forge a safer future in women's football.


How to measure a pitch?


The pitch state can be quantified using various measures. All of them have a specific impact on the player’s body. More information:



Gender-tailored pitch?


Exploring the concept of gender-tailored football pitches necessitates a nuanced understanding of the interplay between player-surface interactions and the risk of injuries, particularly anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, among female athletes. Given the existing body of research, there's an argument that the optimal football pitch for women may indeed require different characteristics compared to those designed for men. This assertion is grounded in the recognition of distinct risk factors for ACL injuries in women, such as anatomical, neuromuscular and physiological differences (Pfeifer et al., 2018).


Some evidence supporting the need for tailored playing surfaces comes from a study by Xiao and colleagues, which highlighted an increased risk of ACL injuries among female soccer players  (Xiao et al., 2022). This finding aligns with anecdotal reports, such as the instance where two internationals from the Belgian Red Flames sustained ACL injuries in the same match, having expressed concerns about the pitch condition beforehand (Sporza, 2021). Such incidents underscore the critical role that playing surfaces play in injury risk, further complicating the multifactorial nature of injury occurrence. This complex web includes variables like training load, muscle strength, psychological stress, and fatigue, all of which contribute to the overall risk profile (Bittencourt et al., 2016).


The surface of the pitch is a pivotal factor in this equation as it directly influences the mechanical interactions between the player and the ground. Of particular interest is the concept of rotational traction, which refers to the resistance encountered by a player's foot as it rotates against the surface of the pitch. This factor significantly affects an athlete's kinematics and kinetics, with implications for the stress exerted on the ACL. Excessive rotational traction, for instance, can increase the risk of non-contact ACL injuries by creating unfavourable biomechanical conditions during common football manoeuvres such as reactive pivoting, cutting, or sudden stops (Stefanyshyn et al., 2010).


Rotational traction – the ligament impact metric?


Thomson et al. (2022) defined Rotational traction as the force required to shear the studs in a rotational manner through the playing surface. Whereas translational traction will mostly affect performance-related parameters, rotational traction will alter injury risk (Thomson et al., 2022). Higher levels of rotational traction are linked to higher injury occurrence, more specifically an increase in lower limb injuries (Thomson et al., 2022). In general, artificial pitches are known to be more consistent over time but show significant differences between different constructions. Older or under-maintained artificial turf shows higher rotational traction levels. Between natural turf pitches, there are differences in rotational traction found between constructions, grass species and growth, maintenance approach and many more causing a high amount of variability within the field and throughout the season (Kent et al., 2021; Thomson et al., 2019). Last but not least, there is the shoe-surface interface to be considered, namely the interaction between the outsole of the football shoe (i.e., studs) and the pitch which can alter the available traction as well. Reducing the rotational traction of sports surfaces may lower the biomechanical load, more specifically the peak joint loading at the knee and ankle joint (Wannop et al., 2019).


Based on the preliminary scientific evidence, biomechanical knowledge, and our practice-based insights, we advise investigating a different pitch state for women's football than men's football pitch.


Therefore, the development of gender-tailored football pitches should consider how surface characteristics influence rotational traction levels and, by extension, the biomechanical loading of the ACL. This could involve adjusting the type of turf, its density, the length of the grass, and the underlying material to optimize the balance of providing sufficient traction for optimal performance without increasing the risk of injury through excessive torque. The aim would be to engineer a surface that minimizes adverse biomechanical conditions while accommodating the specific physiological and biomechanical nuances of female athletes.


In conclusion, the call for gender-tailored football pitches is not just about ensuring equity in sports facilities but is fundamentally about enhancing athlete safety and performance. By tailoring pitch characteristics to the unique needs of female football players, it is possible to address one of the critical risk factors for ACL injuries, thereby contributing to a safer sporting environment. This approach requires a multidisciplinary effort, combining insights from sports science, biomechanics, athlete feedback, engineering, and dedicated grounds management, to create pitches that support the health and aspirations of women in football.


“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement.”
- H. James Harrington

Let's keep pushing for innovative solutions to protect our athletes!


At Raw Stadia we support you in making more personalized informed decisions by providing you with objective data.




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