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Under the Microscope - MU Professor Ties Academic Stress to Football Injuries

Jonathan Steffens

MU Professor James Mann recently completed research that sheds more light on what we know about football injuries.  The data was collected from the 2011 Missouri Tigers football team and reveals a new correlation between academic stress and football injuries.

Dr. James Mann has spent his career collecting and interpreting data to try and improve strength, increase power and speed, and reduce injury on the football team.

When the Tigers discovered an unusual streak of injuries, Mann ran through every possibility that could explain the spike.  Health professionals explained the injuries as a result neurological or physiological issues with the players.  What they didn’t expect to find out was that injuries were occurring because of a combination of these.

“I went home and randomly ran the week at which the injury occurred.  We saw there were these huge spikes,” Mann said.  “I was teaching so I happened to just look over at the academic calendar and be like well that week happened to correlate with midterms and this one’s the week before thanksgiving and this one’s the week before finals.”

Mann showed his results to UM School of Health Professions Doctor Brick Johnstone and found out that the injuries were occurring as a result of what he called psychoneuroimmunology.

“Basically, what it is, it is how stress affects the body and the immune system.  It really kind of stemmed from some studies of medical students,” Mann said.  “They found out that stress increased illness in med students and it delayed wound healing.”

As he started the research, Mann broke down every week in the football season into three different categories.  There were high physical stress weeks, such as the first 2 weeks of practice where players go through grueling workouts, high academic stress weeks and low academic stress weeks.  Mann said he realized academic stress was affecting injuries when he looked at the odds of players getting injured during each of these three weeks.

“Whenever we looked at high physical stress and low academic stress, they were 2.8 times as likely to get hurt.  Then we looked at the high academic stress versus low academic stress and that was 3.19”, Mann said.  “A pen made them more likely to get hurt than some 300 pound dude barreling down on them.”

Dr. Patrick Ivey is the Director of Athletic Performance at the University of Missouri.  It is his job to help prevent injuries by taking players through stretching and recovery during every practice. Ivey said he sees a lot of injuries come as a result of lifestyle choices of his athletes.   He said he compares athletes injury issues with money in a bank.

“There are certain activities that cost money and certain activities that you can do to put money in your bank.  The whole idea is you don’t want to go bankrupt.  The things that cost are not getting enough sleep, it may be staying up all night studying for a test, it may be you had a really tough workout in the weight room,” Ivey said. “Let‘s say it’s halfway through the season, midterms, it’s the biggest game of the season and you’re staying up all night studying for your midterms.  You’re putting more time into practice, you’re stressed out and your body breaks down.”

Ivey said it is his job to lean on the players to take care of themselves knowing that stressful times are going to be coming up. 

Mann said the results of his research bring up some institutional changes that he thinks need to happen if the team wants to limit injuries.

“My recommendations would be changes in overall time or intensity.  You could have a super intense practice with a lot of hitting, a lot of speed, a lot of jumping and have it very short.  Or you could have an extended practice, more along the normal times, and have it be more of the technical-tactical, more psychologically engaging,” Mann said.  “If we go into an academic stress week, and I know that today I want to have a super hard hitting, fast up tempo practice.  Let’s take it down to an hour.”

Mann said he also suggests spacing out physically intensive practices during high academic stress weeks.  He said injuries could be limited by following each shortened intense practice with longer tactical heavy practices that give players a physical rest.

Michaela Tucker is a Minneapolis native currently studying broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri. She is also a co-founder of KBIA’s partner program Making Waves, a youth radio initiative that empowers Columbia Public Schools students to share their stories.
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