Shirtless and lying face down on a therapy table is a member of Ryerson’s men’s volleyball team. He is receiving electrotherapy treatments on his lower back, three days before the start of the OUA Final Four. The room is large and brightly lit. Workout equipment is everywhere with exercise and medicine balls, resistance and tension bands and balance boards occupying various walls and corners. In addition to the six therapy tables, three cold tubs occupy the far left side of the room. A large medicine cabinet and counter takes up the far right wall, while a skeleton wearing a collared orange shirt watches over the therapy table area.
Even though the varsity season is winding down, it doesn’t mean the athletic therapy department stops too. Led by two full-time staff, one part-time therapist and a team of athletic therapy students, the athletic therapy department is responsible for making sure over 200 of the university’s varsity athletes are healthy and ready to go for every practice and game. They are the ones on the sidelines and behind the scenes, helping athletes in their injury recovery, both physically and mentally.
Since moving to the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC) in 2012, the athletic therapy department has seen an increase in the number of athletes they treat. Back then, the integrated support system of athletic therapy and strength and conditioning wasn’t in place and they only had a third of the space they have now, with just two staff. Men’s hockey took place off-campus while women’s hockey was still a club team. Teams are now going deeper into the playoffs as well, which increases the need for treatment.
Jerome Camacho has been the head athletic therapist at Ryerson since 2008. In addition to providing care for over 200 student-athletes, he oversees a full-time assistant, a part-time therapist and a team of student therapists. For Camacho, athletic therapy is a combination of art and science, balancing using people skills and what he learned in school. One of the biggest challenges Camacho has is juggling everything and ensuring that there is always a therapist at every practice and game — at home and on the road.
Beyond helping an athlete physically, there is also a large psychological aspect of athletic therapy.
“It’s a huge part of it,” said Camacho. “If you aren’t there with your mental stuff, then your body will just follow with what your brain is telling you, so if you give up [and] throw in the towel, your body is going to give up and throw in the towel too. There is a lot of stuff we don’t learn in school but we learn on the job in terms of emotional intelligence, tactfulness and being able to help the athletes be psychologically ready and be able to cope with what they are going through.”
For women’s volleyball player and assistant coach Becky Zeeman, it was mentally draining dealing with her season and career-ending injury in her last year of OUA eligibility. In a February game against McMaster, Zeeman was blocking her opponent at the net when the player landed on her. The McMaster player wasn’t hurt but Zeeman fractured her fibula, dislocating it from her tibia. Despite undergoing surgery two weeks later, she won’t be able to walk for another three months.
“It was very fast, and having that privilege actually made it really difficult for me to come to terms with what was happening so quickly — because I went from the most athletic I’ve ever been, to not being able to walk, to realizing I needed surgery and not really being sure about everything,” said Zeeman. “The therapists here were amazing, they helped me through the whole process but it was a tough two weeks.”
Men’s volleyball player Uchenna Ofoha sprained his ankle the week before the OUA Final Four. In the last game of the season, which was the OUA Final Four bronze medal game against Guelph, he landed briefly on an opponent’s foot under the net and he felt his ankle turn, suffering a class two sprain. To help with the recovery, the therapist will use an interferential current (IFC) machine to reduce the pain. An ultrasound is used to help break up scar tissue while he therapist manually massages the swelling down to take away some of the ankle pain, followed by icing. Otherwise, it’s ice, elevation, compression and rest with a recovery time estimated at two to three weeks.
Athletic therapy works closely with the strength and conditioning department as their work overlaps in many areas. Both departments report to Ryerson’s manager of sport performance Brian Finniss, and he is also involved with every athlete injury report. For the strength and conditioning department, injury prevention is the first priority, followed by performance enhancement. When it comes to strength and conditioning, Finniss said every athlete needs to know how to squat, run and jump properly. When it comes to programming for the athletes, there are areas that they adjust in what Finniss calls “pre-hab.” Instead of rehab, they aim to strengthen the body parts that are overused or at risk of getting hurt.
According to Camacho, male and female athletes typically get the same kinds of injuries. One major difference is that due to their biomechanics, female athletes are generally more prone to knee injuries, specifically ACL tears. Recovery from ACL surgery varies per person but is typically a six to eight-month recovery process that can take up to a full year in some cases.
With volleyball, he sees a lot of knee and ankle injuries as well as upper-body ailments such as shoulder and back problems from overhand swings. Zeeman estimates she has had “dozens of ankle sprains” alongside jammed fingers and thumbs and shoulder injuries from overuse. “With all the running and jumping sports, you’ve got your jumper’s knee, generic knee sprains, ankle sprains, and pulled groins, quads and hamstrings with soccer and hockey,” said Camacho. In soccer, the therapists see frequent lower body muscle injuries due to the impact and contact nature of the sport. They notice more joint issues than volleyball in the lower body because of the repetitive landing and jumping.
One of the student therapists in the department is Shueb Ahmed. He acts as the liaison point between the certified therapists, teams, coaches and athletes. The student therapists facilitate field management by making sure that the players are safe in what they’re doing and provide emergency care if they need it. Usually, he comes in mid-afternoon, depending on the varsity practice, after attending morning classes at Sheridan College. He helps any athletes requesting treatment and assesses them to help with the patient load. For Ahmed, working at Ryerson has been a different challenge compared to his previous placement.
“My previous placement was at a high school where you’re dealing with a lot more immature athletes. A lot of their injuries are on a smaller scale, a lot of overuse injuries — athletics isn’t as big a part of their lives compared to a university setting,” said Ahmed. “So coming to this environment, I’ve been having to deal with pretty elite teams and having to make sure they have everything that they need. The expectation level is high, it requires you essentially to step up.”
The varsity season for Ryerson is over but the athletic therapy department remains busy. Ofoha and Zeeman are presently working through their injuries. Two members of the women’s volleyball team are receiving treatments before practice in preparation for nationals, while two players from the women’s soccer team hit the cold tub after practice. For all the resources and attention the athletic therapy department provides its student-athletes, it’s up to the athlete to be proactive as well.
“You have to have the motivation to get better,” said Camacho.