Several years ago, the University of Missouri football team was overwhelmed by a number of injuries. J. Bryan Mann, an assistant director of strength and conditioning at the university, wanted to understand why this was happening.
Mann started running frequency analyses to see if there was a link between injuries and various physical aspects such as power production, body composition and strength. But despite his efforts, he was unable to to find any answers.
"We ran everything we could possibly think of," Mann said. "We found nothing."
Mann continued to think about potential explanations and one day, questioned whether there was a correlation between the injuries and the date they on which they occurred. He ran the data and saw a link.
Mann found the athletes he looked at during the 2011 season were more likely to have injury restrictions at certain points during the school year. During training camp was one of these time periods, but this made sense because players are pushing their bodies to the limits. But what caught his attention was that athletes were experiencing a higher amount of injuries during stressful academic periods such as exam weeks.
Mann took his findings to Brick Johnstone, a professor of health psychology at the university, who called the issue one of psychoneuroimmunology, which is the way a human's psychology interacts with their immune system. Mann and Johnstone worked together with a number of other professors to put together "The effect of physical and academic stress on illness and injury in division 1 college football players," a paper published online by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
After looking over the data, the researchers found players were more than three times as likely to have an injury restriction during periods of high academic stress, such as during finals or midterms, than they were during periods of low academic stress. Among those who played regularly, academic stress was "just as important" as physical stress when it came to injury restrictions.
“Stress is a syndrome, and all stress affects the body the same way, although not to the same intensity," Mann said. "So it doesn’t matter if the stress is coming from practice, from strength training, from conditioning, from academics, from relationships, from monetary [issues], from any of those means. It's going to affect the body in the same way. And we’ve only got so much resistance that we can give before something starts to break.”
Mann notes that while academic stress is just one of the many stressors student-athletes may experience, programs do their best to account for and adjust to athletes' academic schedules. “We can’t account for when somebody’s significant other breaks up with them. We can’t account for financial problems that the athlete’s family has," Mann said. "But you know what we can account for? Whenever there’s going to be a test."
Mann's suggestion to coaches is that they take things a little easier when it is testing season. "They cannot say, ‘Campus you are not having tests. That’s absolutely ridiculous," he said. "But what they can say is, ‘Look, instead of two hours of practice maybe we go an hour and a half, an hour and forty five. Maybe we pick some drills that work more on the technical and tactical side rather than the physical side of sport preparation for the week. It’s just small changes like that."
Essentially, when college coaches start thinking of their athletes as equal part student and athlete, it benefits the student-athletes and the team as a whole.