When Dave McMannus watches college football, he grasps a lot more than many spectators notice. While crowds roar for a big play or condemn a rival team’s achievements, McMannus notices the more subtle nuances of the athletes’ performances.
He has to. It’s part of his job.
From the moment many athletes step onto the Indiana State campus and through the years they don the Sycamore blue and white, they will spend almost as much time and effort preventing injuries as they will honing their games.
In college, sports “becomes a full-time job, year-round,” said McMannus, who played football as a Sycamore and is now ISU’s head strength and conditioning coach. “All the sports become year round. You have to train year round to even stay in competition.”
Several faculty members have dedicated their careers to helping athletes prepare for competitions by reducing their injury risks while playing sports. Those efforts vary, from McMannus’ day-to-day preparation to the analytical work done by Al Finch. Emeritus professor Robert McDavid’s work to help athletes even turned into a multi-generational family business.
On Bended Knee
While emeritus professor of exercise physiology Robert McDavid taught for more than 30 years, many student-athletes likely know of his work in a more unique, and perhaps direct, manner.
In the mid-1960s, when he was teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi, McDavid was instructing students about the knee when he suddenly had a realization: why not create a brace that could go over the knee to help athletes prevent injuries?
He applied for a patent in 1966, and by 1967, when he was teaching at Indiana State, he began making the McDavid Knee Guard in the basement of his house.
“Well, there wasn’t anything like it on the market,” McDavid said. “Nobody ever thought of using the guard on the knee as a preventative measure because of this idea that it would restrict movement.”
He found the idea a tough one to sell. Sports companies rejected his knee guard because of the belief that it would restrict movement. Others resisted because they thought a brace should have two pivotal points. McDavid’s creation had only one pivotal point for stability reasons; the more pivotal points the brace has, the less stable it’s going to be, McDavid said.
Despite some people’s reservations about the device, which was made of a lightweight polycarbonate plastic known as lexan, athletes at Southern Miss and Indiana State started to use them, “and now practically every college uses it,” McDavid said. “Many high schools use it.”
The professor had graduate students work with him through the years. Some helped outside of the classroom, making the devices alongside McDavid and his family. Others analyzed the brace’s impact on movement; they found that the brace did little to slow an athlete’s speed, McDavid said.
While nothing can completely prevent an injury, the proper bracing of a specific joint “can reduce the severity of the injury, which can result in less time loss for the athlete,” said Shelli Landis, co-head athletic trainer at Indiana State University.
Linemen on the football team are required to wear the McDavid knee guard, said Mitch Wasik, co-head athletic trainer at ISU and the football team’s head athletic trainer.
There are also “limited incidents” in which a student-athlete will wear a stabilizing brace after an injury, Wasik said.
The McDavid guard is just one of many devices available for athletes to use. Knee braces are popular with football teams, particularly offensive and defensive linemen. Hockey players, skiers and basketball players who have been previously injured also use the knee guard, McDavid said.
“Just about every major sporting goods company now has a knee guard or knee brace of its own,” he said.
McDavid made the guard until 1980. He was happy teaching, and the device was finally starting to gain acceptance “as a good device for preventing injury,” he said, which was a good time for him to turn the business over to one of his sons, who had a business background.
“He really worked it,” McDavid said. “I was still teaching and making knee guards at night, so mine was a mom-and-pop operation.”
The company now makes and markets more than 400 different products for athletes and active people, according to the organization’s website. The company, McDavid Inc., boasts sponsors that include Dwyane Wade of the NBA’s Miami Heat, Knowshon Moreno of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, and a variety of athletes in other sports in the United States and around the world.
That’s not bad for an organization that can trace its roots to a knee guard device that was created in a basement.
“I wish someone would keep a record to see what’s the injury rate today compared to what it was 20 years ago,” McDavid said, “because it’s got to be preventing injuries.”
On the Move
In a demonstration, Al Finch punched a few buttons on his laptop and a collegiate athlete’s image ran several steps before launching the javelin clenched in his hand. At first glance, the results would seem impressive: the thrower hurled the javelin with what seemed to be all the strength in his arm.
Not so fast.
The professor in the department of physical education typed into his laptop, and an animation mimicking the javelin thrower’s movements appeared in slow motion, revealing the bad news.
“He pulls in the javelin,” Finch explains as he reviews the animation of the javelin thrower’s movements. “See the position here at the elbow, the elbow opens up at the joint and, so a lot of the time, it puts a strain on the ligament on the inside of the elbow.”
At the very least, it cost the javelin thrower more than a meter in distance on his throw, Finch explained. But, the bigger issue is incorrect throwing mechanics can lead to injuries.
This is Finch’s work. Using cameras and computer programs, he records and maps an athlete’s movements so he can dissect them to see where improvements can be made. Since he arrived at ISU in 1980, Finch has worked to graph and analyze movement to recommend changes to help athletes reduce the risk of injury.
“You’ve got to make sure you have an effective pattern,” Finch said of athletes, “and if they move improperly they’re going to get injured.”
Finch also has partnered with John McNichols, the ISU men’s track and cross country coach, to analyze the athletes’ motions to help them improve. He has analyzed the movement of high school students at summer camps organized by McNichols.
“Absolutely, if you’re in bad positions in the technique of your event, then there’s no question you’ll be more susceptible to injury,” McNichols said.
Finch analyzed athletes representing the United States in international competition. He worked with the USA Track and Field Elite Hurdle Development Program. He has filmed the national championships in track and field since 1999, along with the Olympic trials in 2000, 2004 and 2008, and filmed track and field events with Gideon Ariel, former director of the US Olympic Sports Sciences division and president of Ariel Dynamics in San Diego, at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. At the 1996 Summer Olympics, Ariel and Finch were the first to upload high-speed major athletic competition video images on the internet for sports performance analysis.
Athletes should analyze their movements as part of the overall preparation for competition, McNichols said.
“I just can’t imagine a coach in the modern day of any sport not taking advantage of that, whether you’re dribbling a soccer ball or whatever,” McNichols said. “I think technique is a key part of the preparation.”
That is the reason Finch can be found in the biomechanics lab in ISU’s Arena. The room contains most of what he needs: multiple televisions connected to various computers with different computer programs, along with devices that can do everything from record movement to determine pressure exerted on the foot. If someone wants to analyze physical movement, this is the place to do it.
Finch has used his experience to testify as an expert in court cases, and he once helped solve a problem with a printing press that jammed as it printed magazine pages.
“So it’s not just injuries,” Finch said. “I look at movement, whether we’re looking at sports, or we’re looking at fundamental movements, walking, lifting or rising out of a chair.”
Worth the Weight
As a child, McMannus enjoyed working out and playing sports. He earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science at ISU, and stayed to earn his master’s degree in physical education with an emphasis in coaching. He then worked with professional football players on their strength and conditioning for the National Football League’s Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts before returning to Indiana State.
“I got to choose what I wanted to do, and I love what I do. So that’s I guess pretty rare, be able to actually not hate work. So many people hate” their jobs, McMannus said. “I love coming in. I work in a weight room. That’s pretty good.”
He works with athletes to become fitter and stronger. Before athletes ever play their first games, they are evaluated by the strength and conditioning staff and, if there is a problem or concern, the athletes undergo a “functional movement screen,” an evaluation to assess such issues as mobility, flexibility and stability or structural abnormalities, McMannus said. Based on the results of the test, athletes are given specific exercises to perform in order to improve an area of concern, such as a weak muscle.
Even if athletes don’t have an area of concern, some still have to go through specific exercises tailored to their sports. Many athletes do special exercises to prevent injuries to certain parts of the body, such as the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), one of the main ligaments in the knee. The ACL strengthening work is emphasized for female athletes because it’s a common injury, McMannus said. Still other exercises are encouraged for athletes in different sports, such as shoulder and neck work for football players.
When their sports are in season, athletes will work out two to three times a week. Once the season ends, they have a couple weeks off before they are back in the weight room, conditioning in preparation for the next year.
For McMannus, now in his third year as strength and conditioning coach, the results are visible. In football, players he witnessed as first-year students are now upperclassmen with years of experience – on the team and in the weight room – to help them on the field.
“They were young kids, so they weren’t very strong, they couldn’t move very well,” McMannus said. “And now you can see, especially this year where they’re successful, they’re going up against a lot bigger guys and pushing them around, and that’s strength-related, so you can definitely see the difference.”
While some injuries are a matter of circumstance and unpreventable, others can be prevented and proper conditioning helps reduce the likelihood that the injuries will occur, Landis said.
“When we identify the potential risk, we work together to put the student-athlete on a rehabilitation program to hopefully reduce the chances of this potential injury from becoming a problem that may result in sport-time loss,” Landis said.
Athletes sometimes receive additional help from the strength and conditioning staff members as well. McMannus helps some interested athletes with nutritional advice, such as the types of food to eat, best times to eat and tips for cooking and shopping.
“You can lift as hard as you want, you can condition hard, all the training you want,” McMannus said, “but if you’re not backing it up with recovery and good nutrition, then you’re never going to hit your optimal achievement. I mean, it’s all just kind of part of it. You’ve got to have all sides.”
Austin Arceo is the assistant director of media relations at Indiana State.