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The Importance of High Quality On-Field Rehabilitation When Returning from Injury!

On-field (or on-court) rehabilitation is an essential component of injury rehabilitation programmes, helping players transition from gym-based training back to team training (1,5). This blog outlines the key components of on-field rehabilitation (OFR) and details why it is essential for athletes when returning from injury.

Recommended Injury Rehabilitation Process

Figure 1. Recommended Injury Rehabilitation Process (1)


Your Rehab Timeline

Whether you're an athlete who is rehabbing an injury or a rehabilitation practitioner (i.e. sports physiotherapist or strength & conditioning coach), the following sections will allow you to understand what a comprehensive injury rehabilitation process should look like. OFR should be in-cooperated into all medium-to-long term injury rehabilitation programmes. However, too often OFR is either programmed poorly or even skipped entirely, with individuals transitioning from their gym-based rehabilitation, into some linear (straight-line) running and straight into full team training. Neglecting OFR in this manner will likely lead to a re-injury or an injury elsewhere.

One must consider the physical, psychological, tactical and technical demands of sport (2). Athlete's who are injured become physically de-conditioned, demonstrate reduced confidence levels and often have a fear of re-injury. Off-feet conditioning work (i.e. stationary bike, ski erg, swimming) can and should be prescribed at an appropriate stage during rehabilitation, but nothing can replicate on-feet running-based conditioning. An on-field period of rehabilitation is therefore vital to prepare an athlete both physically & psychologically for their sport. As well as helping to develop load tolerance at the injured site, OFR also exposes the player to sport-specific skills (1,2). Table 1 outlines the 4 pillars of rehabilitation (2). Restoring each quality throughout the rehabilitation process is key to a successful outcome.


Movement Quality


Physical Conditioning


Sport-Specific Skills


Chronic Training Load

Table 1. The 4 Pillars of On-Field Rehabilitation (2)


Why is On-Field Rehabilitation Frequently Overlooked?

The Missing Component : On-Field Rehabilitation

Figure 2. The Missing Component : On-Field Rehabilitation

OFR is often poorly executed or not completed at all. The injured player should know from Day 1, that OFR is a component of their rehabilitation. It is often the case that people will think that they are ready to return to sport, as their pain has ceased. Unfortunately, being pain free, does not mean that one is fit to play and perform at a high level again. This is where expectations and communication are key. Figure 2 outlines how individual's can entirely skip or skim through the OFR stages 1-5. Other reasons for this can include a lack of understanding from your rehab practitioner of how to deliver OFR and of the demands of your sport. OFR may be outside their scope of practice, therefore onward referral to a suitable sports physiotherapist / strength and conditioning coach is essential. Supervised pitch or court-based sessions will ensure that movement quality (Pillar No.1) is prioritised, throughout the return to play process. Therefore, your practitioner should be on the pitch/court with you, to ensure that compensatory movement strategies are identified & corrected.

In rehabilitation, it's not only what you do that matters, but how you do it!

Figure 3 outlines the 5 stages of OFR (1). I would argue that if you have sustained an injury and you haven't completed these 5 stages, then you have NOT rehabbed optimally. You don't get injured on a physio table, so you should not perform the majority of your rehabilitation there. Failing to complete rehabilitation may lead to an unsuccessful return to sport and will likely increase your risk of future injury. Both volume and intensity are manipulated as the player is guided through the 5 stages. Pre-planned movement tasks in the early stages (i.e. high control) are progressed to more complex, reactive and representative neuro-cognitive tasks in the later stages (high chaos) (7). The later stages of rehabilitation must occur under chaotic conditions, in order to replicate the unpredictable nature of the sport (7). The contents of stage 5 sessions should mirror the intensity and volume of team training.

The 5 Stages of On-Field Rehabilitation, Which Sit On A Continuum of Control To Chaos

Figure 3. The 5 Stages of On-Field Rehabilitation, Which Sit On A Continuum of Control To Chaos (1,3,4)

Pre-planned movement tasks in the early stages of on-field or on-court rehabilitation are progressed to more complex, reactive and representative neuro-cognitive tasks in the later stages.


OFR : Measuring External Workload

To ensure that a progressive increase in training load occurs over the OFR period, we must measure various metrics from our training sessions (i.e. acute load). GPS (e.g. StatSports) is used to measure a variety of running-based data, with heart rate monitoring (e.g. Polar H10 Sensor) key to ensuring that the athlete is working at optimal intensities. Recording this acute training load data allows the accumulated load over the OFR period to be measured (i.e. chronic load) (4). Other benefits of GPS include maximal running speed monitoring and ensuring that players meet position-specific targets (6). One must also consider internal load (i.e. the player's response to the training session), via a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) score or wellness questionnaire (6). Table 2 outlines the key metrics that we commonly measure during OFR sessions (2).


Total Distance (m)


Maximal Speed (km/h)


High-Speed Running Distance (@ speeds >19.8 km)


No. Sprints (@ speeds > 25 km/h)


No. Decelerations (>3 m/s2)


No. Accelerations (>3 m/s2)


Time in Aerobic Heart Rate Zone (70-85% MHR)


Time in Anaerobic Heart Rate Zone (>85% MHR)


Session Rate of Perceived Exertion (sRPE)

Table 2. External & Internal Metrics Measured During On-Field Rehabilitation Training (2)


When Can I Return To Team Training Following Injury?

This is the most common question that is asked by individuals following an injury. The answer is NOT time-based, but criteria-based. One is deemed physically and psychologically ready to return to team training once they have completed stage 5 of on-field rehabilitation, as well as passing a battery of tests (1). Each test will have a specific benchmark score that you will need to meet, in order to pass the test. This test battery should cover the following :

  • Psychological readiness questionnaires

  • Clinical tests (pain, swelling & range of motion)

  • Maximal strength

  • Endurance strength

  • Explosive & reactive strength

  • Movement video analysis

  • Completed OFR Stages 1-5


What My Rehab Should Look Like

An Optimal Rehabilitation Timeline

Figure 4. An Optimal Rehabilitation Timeline


On-Field Rehabilitation : What To Expect

1-To-1 Fully Supervised Sessions

Baseline Testing (e.g. Aerobic Capacity, Lower Limb Power, Speed)

A Comprehensive Return To Sport Plan

Injury, Sport & Position-Specific Rehab Sessions

Improve Your Acceleration & Deceleration Capabilities

Increase Your Speed & Change of Direction Speed

Increase Your Confidence Following Injury

If you or someone you know has sustained an injury, on-field rehabilitation must be a key component of your return to sport journey. On-field rehabilitation will help you to regain your fitness, improve your ball skills and increase your confidence following an injury. Sessions are tailored to your specific sport, i.e. soccer, gaelic football, hurling, basketball, field hockey, etc. Following this progressive pathway will also mean that you're in a better place once you return to the pitch or court, all whilst reducing your risk of future flare-up's or future injury.

Express your interest in this key component of rehabilitation. Get in touch with me via email or by phone on 087 186 0194. Alternatively, book online using the button below.

I look forward to working with you.



(1) Buckthorpe, M., Della Villa, F., Della Villa, S., & Roi, G. S. (2019). On-field Rehabilitation Part 2: A 5-Stage Program for the Soccer Player Focused on Linear Movements, Multidirectional Movements, Soccer-Specific Skills, Soccer-Specific Movements, and Modified Practice. The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy, 49(8), 570–575.

(2) Buckthorpe, M., Della Villa, F., Della Villa, S., & Roi, G. S. (2019a). On-field Rehabilitation Part 1: 4 Pillars of High-Quality On-field Rehabilitation Are Restoring Movement Quality, Physical Conditioning, Restoring Sport-Specific Skills, and Progressively Developing Chronic Training Load. The Journal of orthopaedic and sports physical therapy, 49(8), 565–569.

(3) Buckthorpe, M., Frizziero, A., & Roi, G. S. (2019b). Update on functional recovery process for the injured athlete: return to sport continuum redefined. British journal of sports medicine, 53(5), 265–267.

(4) Taberner, M., Allen, T., O'keefe, J., & Cohen, D. D. (2022). Contextual considerations using the 'control-chaos continuum' for return to sport in elite football - Part 1: Load planning. Physical therapy in sport : official journal of the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Sports Medicine, 53, 67–74.

(5) Armitage, M., McErlain-Naylor, S. A., Devereux, G., Beato, M., & Buckthorpe, M. (2022). On-field rehabilitation in football: Current knowledge, applications and future directions. Frontiers in sports and active living, 4, 970152.

(6) Armitage, M., McErlain-Naylor, S. A., Devereux, G., Beato, M., Iga, J., McRobert, A., Roberts, S., & Buckthorpe, M. (2024). On-field rehabilitation in football: current practice and perceptions. A survey of the English Premier League and Football League. Science & medicine in football, 1–10. Advance online publication.

(7) Taberner, M., Allen, T., & Cohen, D. D. (2019). Progressing rehabilitation after injury: consider the 'control-chaos continuum'. British journal of sports medicine, 53(18), 1132–1136.



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