A leading Queensland doctor has called on schools to implement a simple measure to prevent a spate of serious knee injuries, warning that once a teenager suffers such a setback their dreams of reaching the pinnacles of sport quickly evaporate.
It is a painful experience – physically and emotionally – that many prematurely retired athletes know only too well.
Orthopaedic surgeon Dr Steve Lawrie – an NRL accredited medical officer who has worked alongside elite teams such as the Sunshine Coast Lightning and Melbourne Storm – said there had been a worldwide escalation in the number of kids suffering debilitating Anterior Cruciate Ligament tears and ruptures, particularly in girls.
Just last year, Dr Nirav Maniar of the Australian Catholic University’s Sports Performance, Recovery, Injury and New Technologies Research Centre, released findings that predicated ACL injuries in the nation would more than double in the next decade to 77.2 per 100,000 population should programs to prevent these setbacks not be incorporated.
Lawrie wants more schools and junior programs to implement the FIFA 11+ program.
It is a series of warm-up and pre-conditioning exercises found to reduce the likelihood of a knee or ACL injury by 39 per cent, or 50 per cent for high-risk athletes aged between 13 and 18.
“If a kid blows their ACL or tears their meniscus, that knee is changed forever. They’ve got great risk of arthritis, and that’s starting at a young age,” he said.
“It is quite interesting, this stuff we’re talking about is pretty well known.
“It’s surprising that schools have not got themselves into trouble yet if we know that implementing this stuff that is easy and has a profound effect on kids’ health isn’t being done.”
While ACL injuries sustained through contact are largely unavoidable, Lawrie said for many it was an inherited issue – raising the importance of preparing the knee properly before competing.
For those with a family history, there is approximately a 60 per cent chance of the injury reoccurring.
“What the actual reality is if you’re a young athlete that wants to make it, say you’re 15 or 16 and you tear your ACL, you don’t make it,” Lawrie said.
“It takes 12 months to recover, you make a full recovery and can be back playing sport and doing the things you want to do, but over that 12 months all your cohorts have just gone past you.
“They’ve developed further, so your chance of coming back as the elite athlete that you were is rare.
“There is a big psychological impact, and with kids and sport is their life … being taken away from that sporting environment can be pretty challenging to handle.”
The luckless run
Clutching his knee in agony, and with the pain of another setback in his sporting career, Jeff Lynch became lost.
His NRL dream was in tatters. His second serious knee injury, following a severe shoulder setback, had him on the cusp of unemployment.
He faced an even harder battle to avoid all that comes with despair.
Now, Lynch has called on all sporting bodies to take their mental health training to new heights with their young athletes, and equip them with the tools to overcome the brutal hurdles which may fall before them.
When the hard-nosed prop was felled by his first ACL rupture, he was still contracted to the Canberra Raiders.
It came just two games after returning from shoulder reconstruction surgery – his first major injury – and another “lonely” stint in recovery amid a relationship breakdown would follow.
“There were a few dark times,” Lynch admits.
“There were definitely some hard times and some relationship breakdowns during that time didn’t help, but I was super grateful for the physios and the support network at the Raiders at the time.
“They really were able to get me through that and probably back to better shape than I’ve ever been in.”
But when Lynch went down again, having then just come off contract with the Gold Coast Titans in 2017, the enforcer felt his career slipping away again.
“This was the toughest and lowest point for me, out of all my injuries to be honest,” Lynch said.
“I had a death in the family back home, and then … there was some loophole where the insurance didn’t cover me either.
“I was working as a landscaper at the time, so I obviously couldn’t be pushing the barrel or do any landscaping duties. I had no work for a fair while.
“I had no money, I couldn’t work, my knee was buggered and all these thoughts started growing quite frequently and consistently.”
Fighting the inner demons
Lynch would never realise his NRL dream – a story shared by many aspiring athletes. The average top-level career span has also reduced to just 75 games.
In Lynch’s case, he endured something of an implosion.
His battles with depression proved a far greater conquest than his body’s struggles.
Now he stands determined to ensure the next generation do not suffer in the same vain, co-founding The AIM Foundation to help better support the mental wellbeing of youth and other athletes seeking the pinnacles of their field.
Lynch said the teenagers coming through the sporting ranks had all the physical tools they needed to succeed. But to thrive they also needed to be trained to comprehend the setbacks which may befall them.
“I wasn’t well-equipped enough, I moved away from home when I was 16 from a small country town,” Lynch said.
“I went to Canberra with next to no one trying to make it at the Raiders, and the two massive injuries hit pretty hard. It caused a relationship breakdown with myself, and you spiral into a bit of a dark hole.
“I had mates that had made all the NSW and Queensland teams, Australian schoolboys and that, and they were captains of Newcastle and this sort of thing, but they never kicked on because they had four knee reconstructions, or two shoulder reconstructions.
“I remember them talking to me, and in my head I couldn’t fathom that happening to me.
“The NRL and the QRL do a fantastic job in preparing the kids to be prepared for work and education, but I think we can still probably do better with the wellbeing of our players when they’re going through injuries.
“There is that unspoken thing that everyone who has a major injury or setback will tell you when you’re in that rehab group it’s a very lonely place.”
Back from the brink
Inevitably Lynch returned to the fore, plying his trade for his beloved Burleigh Bears in the Queensland Cup.
Having become so accustomed to playing through the pain, the now 29-year-old did not even realise he had torn his ACL once again.
Lynch played much of the 2021 campaign on one leg, unbeknown to him.
This time around he knew his rehabilitation would be a whole new beast.
This was not a crisis, it was a challenge to rise to.
A challenge he overcame to return in 2023 – only suspension keeping him from playing more than the 14 Queensland Cup games he has managed.
Lynch admits it was a mentality that took him the best part of his lifetime to develop. While grateful for the road he has taken, he implored to teachers, coaches and the next generation to prepare their pupils preemptively.
“I think maturity wise I’m a little older now, I look at the world a bit differently than when I was young and in a full-time system,” Lynch said.
“I understand these things happen and I think I’ve equipped myself with the right tools to be able to deal with these sorts of things easier than when I was young and a bit hot headed and had bit of a chip on the shoulder.
“I look back, and I was able to do a lot of things most people would only dream about. I’m super grateful for the career I’ve had.
“I’ve had one hell of a ride with no regrets, but to be honest, I’m literally playing my best footy right now.
“I’m definitely not anywhere near done yet: to be continued.”