Biomechanics and The Physics of Amputee Football

An in-depth look at exactly how amputee football is played and the physical demands of the sport.
Raycene Nevils-Karakeci
Turkish Superleague Amputee Football MatchRaycene Nevils Karakeci 

In the 1980s, amputee skiing was newly popular. One day, professional amputee skier Don Bennett was watching his son play basketball when the ball rolled past him. He passed it back with his crutch. The unexpected move made him imagine playing football on crutches, and amputee football had been born.

Bennett and his friends from amputee skiing were the first to play the game, playing football to help them stay fit during the summer. The game went from an informal meet-up to an official sport with a complex set of rules. After it became popular in the Americas, Bennett traveled the world, teaching people to how to play. 

How amputee football is played

Amputee football is played with seven players on each team. There are six outfield players and one goalkeeper. Outfield players must have a lower limb deficiency. They play using metal forearm crutches, and are not allowed to wear prosthetics. However, there is an exception to that rule. Bilateral leg amputees can play while wearing prosthetic legs

Goalkeepers are required to have an upper limb deficiency. They usually wear a shirt that covers their residual limb. This is because players are not allowed to use their residual limbs to advance or direct the ball during the game. Another rule that is unique to amputee football is the rule against moving the ball with crutches.  Also, it is strictly forbidden to use a crutch against another player. Hitting another player with a crutch is cause for a penalty kick and being thrown out of the game. 

The biomechanics of amputee football

Watching amputee football is quite exciting. It is an intense game. Seeing it for the first time may leave you with the question: How? The power and finesse of running on crutches, passing the ball while doing so, and the acrobatics of the goalies are all testaments to the power of the human body. Walking on crutches expends a great deal more energy than walking without them.

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Amputee footballers sprint, pivot, flip and manipulate the ball on crutches. Their energy expenditure in comparison with able-bodied elite athletes and even athletes with disabilities who do not use crutches is tremendous. There is also the consideration of the effects of amputation on the body.

A Brazilian study on amputee football players notes that amputation can change a person’s balance and oxygen consumption, and lead to changes in the way the body moves. Amputee footballers have to be experts at using crutches, learn to compensate for high energy expenditure, and essentially perform acrobatics while dealing with compromised balance. 

Amputee football and injury

The difficulty of this type of elite sportsmanship has raised concerns over the risk of injury over time. The consequences of sports injuries can be more serious for athletes with disabilities than they are for able-bodied athletes. Accordingly, doctors have studied the rates and types of injuries that were associated with amputee football.

A study of the Polish National Amputee football team found that injury only occurred in 38% of the players, and these were primarily minor injuries that did not require medical consultation. The study concluded that amputee football is relatively low risk. 

Kinetic research on amputee athletes

Besides the safety of amputee football and the mechanics of running on crutches, studies have sought to compare the energy expenditure and several other measures of the athletic ability of amputee football players vs. able-bodied athletes. It is actually very difficult to come up with definitive figures and statements about this class of athletes because amputation affects the body in different ways, and players have different types and levels of amputation, along with different physical and medical histories.

A below-the-knee amputee and an above-the-knee amputee will have completely different physical demands doing daily tasks, let alone playing football. The same conclusion can be inferred in relation to the upper limb amputees that play as goalies and the lower limb amputees running the field. 

Science continues to try to make sense of the effects of this extraordinarily demanding sport on the human body, but the biggest thing to keep in mind while watching a match is that these players are expending an incredible amount of energy while playing a mentally and physically difficult game. 

Watch professional player and comedian Josh Sundquist's lighthearted take on the game below.  

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