Science in Football: Genetic Testing to Identify Injury-Prone Players

Sean BabcockCorrespondent IIOctober 18, 2011

In the constant battle to remain relevant in association football, Europe's biggest clubs in recent years have sought help from scientists and research labs to gain an edge over the competition. But the latest advances could have dire consequences to the future of the game.

In most cases, science is a welcome aspect of modern football that has made a number of breakthroughs to make the game more competitive than it's ever been.

The focus is typically on injury recovery and rehabilitation training, discovering newer and more effective ways to heal impact injuries and get players back onto the pitch.

Advances in hydration management and fatigue reduction have also kept some of the world's best players performing at greater capacities for longer periods of time.

One of the most notable think-tanks for football science is the renowned Milan Lab, operated by AC Milan to gain a cutting-edge advantage in the more academic side of football.

Its researchers have thoroughly studied player movements for years to identify the most effective tactics in a variety of situations, including a comprehensive study of thousands of player jumps to identify the ideal landing conditions required to avoid impact injuries upon hitting the ground.

The Milan Lab has also revolutionized playing tactics focused on resting individual players at various points during a 90-minute match. If you ever see a Milan player being left out of a play in the 60th minute, it could be because a scientist told him to catch his breath and push hard during the next play instead.

Most of these are welcome additions to the tactics used in football today. But a new line of thinking emerging in England is less likely to be seen as welcome, and more likely to stir up plenty of controversy.

According to multiple sources, including ESPN and The Telegraph, an "unnamed Premier League club" has commissioned Yale University scientists to genetically test its players and attempt to identify genetic indicators that can serve as a warning sign to whether an athlete is prone to injury.

"I have no idea which players they were," said Professor Marios Kambouris, who led the study which identified over 100 genetic factors linked to increased risk of injury. "But there were good genes in there, things which would positively affect their performance, such as their ability to have better aerobic respiration, which would give them more stamina on the pitch."

The idea behind the research is harmless enough. In theory, the club would use the research to reduce the risk of their existing players suffering an injury, and aid the effort to create "better-informed training schedules and squad selection."

But Professor Kambouris was quick to point out the ethical dilemma in having such information so readily available, warning that the research could be used to screen for "high-risk" players before they sign for a new club.

"It may be really unfair to have a child who likes football, who may be told he will never make it because he has the wrong set of genes," he said in an interview with The Times.

And one has to wonder what will happen when other pieces of genetic information, determining various aspects of athletic ability, become widely available as well.

To put things into perspective, consider what would happen if Lionel Messi were born in an era of genetic screening to avoid "high-risk" players.

The Argentine superstar, who suffered from a genetic growth hormone deficiency as a child, may have been completely overlooked for not having the genetic composition desired by club officials misusing the data.

I'm not one to typically get caught in the old trap of using slippery-slope arguments in my daily routine, but the direction that this methodology could lead the game is not one that I would like to see in my lifetime. Not every factor that makes a football legend can be determined by genetic code.

Certain skills, like sprint speed, coordination, dribbling skills or ball control, might be somewhat predictable within a certain range by predetermined factors. But they are still acquired through years of practice, a strong work ethic, and intense training.

It would be a shame to reach a point in information usage that sees skilled players turned away because somebody in front of a computer decided that they might not be built to possess the skills that they could easily demonstrate through the age-old methods of traditional scouting.

Of course, the research is nowhere near that degree of complexity as of yet, but the current information could easily make some very talented players become irrelevant if used incorrectly.

Could football be heading toward an era that replaces scouting and player effort with genetic screenings? Instead of trying out for youth programs, could young players be reduced to simply emailing their genetic specifications to big clubs and hoping they make the predetermined cut?

Such suggestions are probably a bit sensationalistic in these early stages of genetic research within the game of football, so I certainly won't go there quite yet.

But sensationalistic or not, they outline a very pressing set of questions that will inevitably emerge when football and genetics become intertwined. And that is a day that could come sooner than we think.


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