Dr. Lizzie Hibberd’s goal for the University of Alabama’s Athletic Training Research Lab is that it have an impact in the real world.
“Every step is about building relationships with people — the athletes, athletic trainers, the parents — so they understand that you’re there to improve their health care,” she says. ”I’m trying to build relationships with people to become part of the community so the research has more impact.”
Hibberd, who came to the University of Alabama in 2014, completed her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in athletic training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While a graduate student, she was an athletic trainer for the swimming and diving teams there.
“One of the big pushes in health care is evidence-based practice, so [I wondered] what does the literature say? But when I went to the literature for answers to my questions on how to treat athletes better, I couldn’t find the answers. That’s when I set out to help create that evidence,” Hibberd says.
She decided to get her doctorate, also from UNC-Chapel Hill, in human movement science, with a focus on shoulder injury biomechanics. During that time, she became interested in youth athletes. While working with college athletes, she noticed that many who came to see her “were broken.” They had developed bad adaptations from participating in sports for years, and she wanted to know what intervention might have prevented those problems.
“I’ve been putting more emphasis on finding characteristics in youth athletes and how those relate to injuries. When do they develop certain physical characteristics? How does their participation in training influence those characteristics, and how and when can we intervene?”
A lab that’s ready to move
The Athletic Training Research Lab, which Hibberd created soon after arriving at UA, specializes in clinical outcomes research with the goal of improving athletic performance while decreasing the risk of injury in athletes of all ages.
The lab is equipped with high-speed video cameras; GoPro cameras; dynamometers, which enable researchers to determine a strength test number; inclinometers, which measure angles and range of motion; therapeutic exercise equipment, and more. The largest piece of equipment is a diagnostic ultrasound that Hibberd uses to look at muscles and bones and get a snapshot of the inside of the body.
“In setting up the lab, it was important that all the equipment be portable,” she says. “The work is a lot easier if you can take your equipment to a field rather than bringing the whole team into the lab. In order for research to be clinically applicable, someone has to have those tools both in the clinic and on the field.”
The lab is also a great opportunity for students to engage in research. Hibberd’s students are writing papers and carrying out projects that range from concussions in hockey players to lower extremity injury prediction.
“I show them the tools and equipment we have, and, with what they know and their interests, they come up with their own research projects,” Hibberd says.
One student’s project looked at different shoulder characteristics of the members of UA’s wheelchair basketball team and how those characteristics have been shown to relate to injury. They then implemented a six-week intervention program that could potentially prevent injury in that population.
In another example, a doctoral student looked at tracking recovery after someone exercises. The project focused on how to evaluate recovery and determine when the muscles are ready for exercise again.
Preseason screenings for Little League players
With her interest in youth athletes, Hibberd hopes to start a project with the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority to assess characteristics of Little League baseball players before they start pitching and how those characteristics might predispose them to injury.
“Often, dads will coach their children’s baseball teams … but they’re trying to teach kids how to throw a baseball,” she says. “They don’t know about teaching skill acquisition relative to fundamental physical characteristics, such as how to squat or balance or do a lunge. That’s not part of their skill set or thought process. But if no one teaches that to the kids, they figure it out on their own, often incorrectly, which can predispose them to injury.”
Hibberd’s goal is to provide preseason screenings to youth athletes, identify intervention programs that will help prevent injury, and track the effectiveness of the programs. Ultimately, she hopes the interventions will become standard practice in community leagues.
“As a researcher, your success is based on whether the end user is applying your work,” she says. “It’s not about doing the research or getting published. It’s about applying the findings into the community and getting somebody to do it. I want to be able to provide screenings and positively impact health care through injury prevention.”
This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama’s website.