A Preventive Model for Muscle Injuries: A Novel Approach based on Learning Algorithms : Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise

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A Preventive Model for Muscle Injuries

A Novel Approach based on Learning Algorithms


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Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 50(5):p 915-927, May 2018. | DOI: 10.1249/MSS.0000000000001535



The application of contemporary statistical approaches coming from Machine Learning and Data Mining environments to build more robust predictive models to identify athletes at high risk for injury might support injury prevention strategies of the future.


The purpose was to analyze and compare the behavior of numerous machine learning methods to select the best-performing injury risk factor model to identify athlete at risk for lower extremity muscle injuries (MUSINJ).


A total of 132 male professional soccer and handball players underwent a preseason screening evaluation that included personal, psychological, and neuromuscular measures. Furthermore, injury surveillance was used to capture all the MUSINJ occurring in the 2013/2014 seasons. The predictive ability of several models built by applying a range of learning techniques were analyzed and compared.


There were 32 MUSINJ over the follow-up period, 21 (65.6%) of which corresponded to the hamstrings, 3 to the quadriceps (9.3%), 4 to the adductors (12.5%), and 4 to the triceps surae (12.5%). A total of 13 injures occurred during training and 19 during competition. Three players were injured twice during the observation period so the first injury was used, leaving 29 MUSINJ that were used to develop the predictive models. The model generated by the SmooteBoost technique with a cost-sensitive ADTree as the base classifier reported the best evaluation criteria (area under the receiver operating characteristic curve score, 0.747; true positive rate, 65.9%; true negative rate, 79.1) and hence was considered the best for predicting MUSINJ.


The prediction model showed moderate accuracy for identifying professional soccer and handball players at risk for MUSINJ. Therefore, the model developed might help in the decision-making process for injury prevention.

Lower extremity muscle injuries (MUSINJ) are very common in professional sports, such as soccer (1), rugby (2), and handball (3). These sports require sudden acceleration and deceleration tasks with rapid changes of directions (4), as well as many situations in which players are required to repetitively kick a ball (5) and/or to be involved in tackling to keep possession of or to win the ball (6). Data have demonstrated that a typical professional soccer team with a 25-player squad could expect 15 MUSINJ each season, and MUSINJ can account for more than a quarter of all lost time from injuries (1). In particular, injuries to four major muscle groups of the lower extremity (i.e., adductors, hamstrings, quadriceps, and triceps surae) comprise more than 90% of all MUSINJ in soccer (1). Therefore, there is a clear necessity to develop and implement strategies aimed at preventing and reducing the number and severity of MUSINJ in professional athletes.

Before establishing MUSINJ prevention programs, it is essential to identify athletes at high risk for MUSINJ through a validated screening program (7). Bahr (7), in a recently published thought-provoking critical review, suggested that before considering a screening program as valid for predicting and preventing sports injuries, it should have successfully overcome three steps. The first step is to identify those potential risk factors that have demonstrated a strong relationship to injury in prospective studies and then define appropriate cutoff values. The second step is to determine the validity of the screening tests used to measure the risk factors to predict new injuries in a new athlete population. Finally, in the third step, studies should document that an intervention program targeting athletes identified as being at high risk, using the developed screen, must be more beneficial than the same intervention program given to all athletes.

In recent years, a substantive effort has been made by the scientific community and medical practitioners to identify strong risk factors associated with the occurrence of muscle injuries. Thus, some prospective studies, but not all, have identified previous injury (8–10), older age (8,10,11), poor flexibility (8,11,12), fatigue (13), and decreased muscle strength or strength imbalances (4,9,12) as potential risk factors associated with MUSINJ. Although significant associations (causal relationship) were found between these risk factors and MUSINJ, the ability of the cutoff scores proposed to predict injuries is not acceptable for screening purposes. In particular, most of the cutoff scores reported in previous studies show good true negative rates (TNrate; e.g., how many individuals with a negative score were not injured); however, the true positive rates (TPrate) were very low (e.g., how many individuals with a positive score were injured). The consequence of this has led Bahr (7) to conclude that (a) finding statistically significant associations between a test result and MUSINJ is not sufficient evidence to use the test to predict who is at risk for injury, and (b) there is no screening test available to predict sports injuries (including MUSINJ) with adequate test properties, and consequently, the exercises included in intervention programs are not evidence based or supported because the link between risk factors and injury incidence remains to be established.

Perhaps one of the main reasons behind the lack of available valid screening programs to predict athletes at high risk of suffering a sport injury, including MUSINJ, could be based on the use of statistical approaches that, in contrast to certain supervised learning algorithms (i.e., ensemble, class balance, and cost-sensitive learning techniques), have not been specifically designed to deal with class imbalance problems, such as the MUSINJ phenomenon, in which the number of injured players (minority class) prospectively reported is always much lower than the noninjured players (majority class) (14). Thus, in many scenarios including MUSINJ, traditional multivariate analyses are often biased (for many reason) toward the majority class (known as the “negative” class), and therefore, there is a higher misclassification rate for the minority class instances (called the “positive” examples), which represent the most important concept (15). Another reason for the limited validation of screening programs might be due to the fact that most of the available studies have analyzed the predictive ability of each risk factor in isolation or in conjunction with just two or three risk factors. However, the MUSINJ phenomenon has been considered as being multifactorial, in which several factors have an influence on it and in some cases interact among themselves (16). Therefore, it might be possible that the individual ability of each potential risk factor to affect on the likelihood to suffer a MUSINJ could be very small and in most cases not statistically significant unless analyzed in conjunction with other known factors simultaneously, as a complex component or factor.

The application of contemporary statistical approaches (e.g., supervised learning algorithms) coming from Machine Learning and Data Mining environments has been specifically designed to deal with class imbalance problems (14) and they can manage a large number of variables to develop a robust predictive model; it might shed new light on this problematic area in sport medicine setting. In fact, these statistical approaches have been applied, among others, in several medical diagnosis studies reporting excellent results (17).

Therefore, the main purpose of the current prospective study was to analyze and compare the behavior of some learning methods to select the best-performing injury risk factor model to predict MUSINJ in a cohort of professional athletes.



A total of 132 male professional soccer (n = 98) and handball (n = 34) players took part in the current study. Soccer players were recruited from four different soccer teams that were engaged in the first (one team, n = 25) and second B (three teams, n = 73) Spanish National Soccer League divisions. Handball players were recruited from three different handball teams that were engaged in the first (one team, n = 11) and third (two teams, n = 23) National Handball League divisions. The sample was homogeneous in potential confounding variables, such as body mass, stature, age, training regime (one game and 4–6 d of training per week), climatic conditions, level of play, resting periods, and sport experience (at least 8 yr).

Although football and handball are two team sports with different rules and physical demands, both have in common a high incidence rate of MUSINJ associated with acute noncontact incidents (injuries with sudden onset and known cause) (1,3). Bahr and Holme (18) stated that for prospective studies aimed at investigating potential risk factors for sports injury, a minimum of 20–50 injury cases should be recorded to detect moderate to strong associations. Therefore, 132 professional football and handball players were recruited to ensure that the appropriate number of MUSINJ might be recorded, even with some attrition. Furthermore, another rationale behind the recruitment of players coming from two different sports was to carry out a preliminary exploration regarding the relevance of the feature sport as a personal or individual risk factor on the final predictive model selected. For example, the feature sport might be considered as relevant if it seems to be a father node in the final model of a single decision tree structure or as a father or child node in numerous trees where the final model is based on a multiple decision trees structure (i.e., multiple classifiers).

The exclusion criteria were as follows: (a) presence of orthopedic problems that prevented the proper execution of one or more of the neuromuscular tests selected for this study and (b) players who were transferred to other clubs and did not finish the 9-month follow-up period. Only primary injuries we used for any player sustaining multiple MUSINJ.

Before study participation, experimental procedures and potential risks were fully explained to the participants in verbal and written form, and written informed consent was obtained from them. An institutional research ethics committee approved the study protocol before data collection, conforming to the recommendations of the Declaration of Helsinki.

Study Design

A prospective cohort design was used to address the purposes of this study. In particular, all the MUSINJ accounted for within the 9 months (2013/2014 season) after the initial testing session were prospectively collected for all players.

Players underwent a preseason evaluation of a number of personal, psychological, and neuromuscular measures, most of them considered potential sport-related injury risk factors.

For each soccer and handball team, the testing session was conducted at the preseason phase of the year.

Testing Procedure

The testing session had a total duration of approximately 120 min and was divided into three different parts (see Figure, Supplemental Digital Content 1, Graphical representation of testing procedure, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B167). The first part of the test session was used to obtain information related to the participants’ personal or individual characteristics (5 min). The second part was designed to assess psychological measures related to sleep quality and athlete burnout (10 min). Finally, the third part of the session was used to assess a number of neuromuscular measures (105 min).

Each of the eight testers who took part in this study conducted the same tests throughout all the testing sessions, and they were blinded to the purposes of this study. All testers had more than 4 yr of experience in neuromuscular assessment.

Personal or individual risk factors

The ad hoc questionnaire designed by Olmedilla et al. (19) was used to record personal or individual features that have been defined as potential nonmodifiable risk factors for sport injuries. Through this questionnaire, sport-related background [sport, player position, current level of play, dominant leg (defined as the participant’s kicking leg)] and demographic (age, body mass, stature, and body mass index) features were recorded. In addition, the presence within the last season (yes or no) of MUSINJ with a total time taken to resume full training and competition of >8 d was also recorded (self-reported; see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 2, Personal injury risk factors recorded, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B168).

Psychological risk factors

Sleep quality and athlete burnout variables were measured through two validated and worldwide used Likert scales. The Spanish version of the Pittsburgh Sleep Diary (20) was used to measure the sleep quality of the soccer and handball players. The final score of this scale was determined as the average of the scores obtained in each of its seven items.

The Spanish version of the Athlete Burnout Questionnaire (21) was used to assess the three different dimensions that comprise athlete burnout: (a) physical/emotional exhaustion, (b) reduced sense of accomplishment, and (c) sport devaluation. Specifically, it is a Likert scale comprising 15 items, 5 per factor, which uses a response format in ordered categories, with five alternatives: almost never, 1; not very often, 2; sometimes, 3; often, 4; and almost always, 5. (See Table, Supplemental Digital Content 3, description of the psychological risk factors recorded, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B169).

Neuromuscular risk factors

Before the neuromuscular risk factor assessment, all participants performed the dynamic warm-up designed by Taylor et al. (22). This warm-up routine was chosen because it reflects the standard warm-up structure (aerobic exercises + dynamic stretching exercises + sport-specific movements executed at or just below game intensity) that might be the most widely used in soccer and handball. In addition, the effects elicited by this dynamic warm-up routine have been demonstrated to be enough to optimize the subsequent physical performance in elite athletes (22). The overall duration of the entire warm-up was approximately 15–20 min. The assessment of the neuromuscular risk factors was carried out 3–5 min after the dynamic warm-up.

In the experimental session, participants were assessed from a number of neuromuscular performance measures obtained from five different testing maneuvers: 1) dynamic postural control, 2) isometric hip abduction and adduction strength, 3) lower extremity joint ranges of motion (ROM); 4) core stability, and 5) isokinetic knee flexion and extension strength.

The order of the tests was consistent for all participants and was established with the intention of minimizing any possible negative influence among variables. A 5-min rest interval was given between consecutive testing maneuvers.

Dynamic postural control

Dynamic postural control was evaluated using the Y-Balance device® and following the guidelines described by Shaffer et al. (23).

The distance reached in each direction (anterior, posteromedial, and posterolateral) was normalized by dividing by the previously measured leg length to standardize the maximum reach distance ([excursion distance/leg length] × 100 = percent maximum reach distance) (23). The bilateral ratio (dominant/nondominant score) of each direction was also calculated. A bilateral ratio higher than 10% was considered as asymmetry. Finally, to obtain a global measure of the balance test for each leg, data from each direction were averaged to calculate a composite score.

Isometric hip abduction and adduction strength

Isometric hip abduction and adduction peak torques (PT) of the dominant and nondominant limb were assessed with a portable handheld dynamometer (Nicholas Manual Muscle Tester, Lafayette Indiana Instruments) in a supine lying position on a plinth with the participant’s legs extended and following the methodology described by Thorborg et al. (24). Briefly, participants performed five trials of 5-s isometric maximal voluntary contraction for each hip movement. The mean of the three most closely related trials was used for the subsequent statistical analyses. Unilateral hip abductor/adductor PT ratio defined as the hip adductor PT divided by hip abductor PT was calculated for each leg. Furthermore, the hip abduction and adduction bilateral ratios were also determined as the quotient of the dominant hip mean isometric peak value by the nondominant hip mean isometric peak value. A side-to-side difference higher than 10% was defined as bilateral asymmetry.

Lower extremity joints ROM

The passive hip flexion with knee flexed and extended, extension, abduction, and external and internal rotation; knee flexion; and ankle dorsiflexion with knee flexed and extended ROM of the dominant and nondominant legs were assessed following the methodology previously described (25). Furthermore, for each joint ROM measure, side-to-side differences were also calculated. In this sense, when a side-to-side difference of >6° was found, players were categorized as showing bilateral asymmetries, whereas scores of ≤6° were accepted as normal (nonbilateral asymmetries) (12).

Core stability

The unstable sitting protocol described by Barbado et al. (26) was used to assess participant’s ability to control trunk posture and motion while sitting. Briefly, after a familiarization/practice period (2 min), participants performed different static and dynamic tasks while sitting on an unstable seat:

  • One static stability task without visual feedback (test 1) and another with visual feedback (test 2). In test 1, participants were asked to sit still in their preferred seated position on the unstable seat, whereas in test 2, participants were requested to adjust their center of pressure position to a target point located in the center of a screen placed in front of them.
  • Three dynamic stability tasks with visual feedback, in which participants were asked to track the target point, which moved along three possible trajectories (anterior–posterior, medial–lateral, and circular)

All tasks were performed twice. The duration of each trial was 70 s and the rest period between trials was 1 min. Participants performed each trial with arms crossed over the chest. All participants were able to maintain the sitting position without grasping a support rail.

The mean radial error was used as a global measure to quantify the trunk/core performance during the trials. This variable was calculated as the mean of vector distance magnitude of the center of pressure from the target point trials (trials with visual feedback) or from the participant’s own mean center of pressure position (trials without visual feedback) (27).

Isokinetic knee flexion and extension strength

A Biodex System-4 isokinetic dynamometer (Biodex Corp., Shirley, NY) and its respective manufacture software were used to determine isokinetic concentric and eccentric torques during knee extension and flexion actions in both limbs following the methodology described by Ayala et al. (28).

Two isokinetic gravity-corrected variables were extracted for each movement (flexion and extension), muscle action (concentric, eccentric), and velocity (60°·s−1, 180°·s−1, and 240°·s−1 for concentric actions and 30°·s−1, 60°·s−1, and 180°·s−1 for eccentric actions): PT and joint angle of PT (APT). In each of the three trials at each velocity, the PT and APT were reported as the single highest torque output and corresponding joint angle. For each isokinetic variable, the average of the three sets at each velocity was used for subsequent statistical analysis. When a variation of >5% was found in the PT and APT values between the three trials, the mean of the two most closely related torque values was used for the subsequent statistical analyses.

Reciprocal (conventional and functional) knee flexion to knee extension ratios as well as bilateral knee flexion and extension ratios were also calculated using PT values extracted for each velocity. Thus, the conventional knee flexion to knee extension ratios were calculated as the ratio between the PT produced concentrically by knee flexor and knee extensor muscles during the isokinetic tests. Functional knee flexion to knee extension ratios were calculated as the ratio between the PT produced eccentrically by the knee flexor muscles and concentrically by the knee extensor muscles. Bilateral knee flexion and extension ratios were calculated dividing the PT value of the dominant limb by the PT value of the nondominant leg.

Finally, the functional knee flexion to knee extension ratio proposed by Croisier et al. (4) was also calculated as the ratio between the PT produced eccentrically by the knee flexor at 30°·s−1 and concentrically by the knee extensor muscles at 240°·s−1.

Injury Surveillance

Following the recommendations made by the International Injury Consensus Group (29), a MUSINJ was defined as an acute pain in the muscle location that occurred during training or competition and resulted in the immediate termination of play and inability to participate in the next training session or match. These injuries were confirmed through a clinical examination (identifying pain on palpation, pain with isometric contraction, and pain with muscle lengthening) by team doctors. Players were considered injured until the club medical staff (medical doctor or physiotherapist) allowed for full participation in training and availability for match selection. Only hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps surae, and adductor muscles injuries were considered in this study.

The club medical staff of each club recorded MUSINJ on an injury form that was sent to the study group each month. For all MUSINJ that satisfied the inclusion criteria, team medical staff provided the following details to investigators: muscle (hamstrings, quadriceps, triceps surae, and adductors), leg injured (dominant/nondominant), injury severity based on lay-off time from soccer or handball [slight/minimal (0–3 d), mild (4–7 d), moderate (8–28 d), and severe (>28 d)], date of injury, moment (training or match), whether it was a recurrence (defined as an MUSINJ that occurred in the same extremity and during the same season as the initial injury), and total time taken to resume full training and competition. At the conclusion of the 9-month follow-up period, all data from the individual clubs were collated into a central database, and discrepancies were identified and followed up at the different clubs to be resolved. Some discrepancies among medical staff teams were found to diagnose minimal MUSINJ and to record their total time lost. To resolve these inconsistencies in the injury surveillance process (risk of misclassification of the players), only MUSINJ showing a time lost of >4 d (minor to severe) were selected for the subsequent statistical analysis.

Statistical Analysis

The statistical analysis framework carried out in this study for analyzing and comparing the behaviors of several machine learning techniques with the aim of finding the best model for predicting MUSINJ in professional soccer and handball players was based on a supervised learning perspective. From a statistical standpoint, the problem can be stated as follows: given a set of features F (in our case risk factors) and a target (discrete) variable [in our case MUSINJ (yes or no)], named class, C, we want to estimate/learn a mapping function M/FC. Thus, the statistical analysis comprised two stages:

  1. Data preprocessing. At this stage, the data set was prepared to apply the data mining techniques. To optimize this aspect, preprocessing methods such as data cleaning and data discretization were applied.
  2. Data processing. At this stage, the taxonomy suggested by Galar et al. (14) to address learning with imbalanced data sets was applied. In particular, a study on the performance of some proposals for preprocessing, cost-sensitive learning, and ensemble-based methods was carried out. In addition, the approach proposed by Elkarami et al. (30) for imbalanced data sets and based on the combination of a cost-sensitive classifier with class-balanced ensembles was also studied. Four classic decision tree algorithms were used as base classifiers in each method.

Data preprocessing

Data preprocessing is a crucial task because of the quality and reliability of available information, which directly affects the results obtained. Thus, some specific preprocessing tasks were applied to prepare the data set so that the classification task could be performed appropriately.

First, we deleted those players who did not complete all the neuromuscular tests for any reason (six soccer players) from the data set. This exclusion criterion was based on the fact that if a player had not completed a neuromuscular test, a large number of features would be absent and this might have a negative effect on the performance of the models generated. In addition, four soccer players were also deleted because they left their respective teams before the follow-up procedure was completed.

Second, we proceed to study the presence of outliers. In this study, an outlier was defined as a score or value that could not be classified as real or true because of the consequence of a human error or a machine failure. An example of an outlier was a hip adductor PT value of 1500 N because the measurement range of the handheld dynamometer used was from 0 to 1335 N. In particular, we carried out an examination of the full data set using boxplots and the detected outliers were removed.

The third step consisted of looking for missing data. To address this issue, frequency tables and diagrams were built. Thus, missing data were replaced by the mean value of the corresponding variable of the specific sport modality (soccer or handball) of the players. For example, if a football player did not report his weight for any reason, then the average value of his counterpart soccer players was inputted. It should be noted that none of the variables reported a percentage of missing data and/or outliers higher than 3%. The SPSS 21.0 Statistical software was used to carry out this data cleaning process.

After having applied the previously mentioned data cleaning methods, we had to deal with an imbalance (showing an imbalance ratio of 0.34) and high-dimensional data set comprising 88 soccer and 34 handball players (instances) and 151 potential risk factors (features).

The final step comprised the discretization of the continuous features because this has shown to be an effective measure to improve the performance of some classifiers (31). Thus, continuous features were discretized according to the reference values previously reported to consider an athlete as being more prone to suffer an injury. In most features, the discretization reduced their dimensionality to three labels. In case no cutoff scores for detecting athletes at high risk for injury had been previously reported (e.g., stature, body weight, some isokinetic strength features), the unsupervised discretization algorithm available in the well-known Weka (Waikato Environment for Knowledge Analysis) Data Mining software was applied using the equal frequency binning approach (four cut-point intervals). We selected four intervals to reflect taxonomy of low, low–moderate, moderate–high, and high scores that might make the final model more comprehensible. For the discretization of the psychological features (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 3, description of the psychological risk factors recorded, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B169) and the isokinetic APT features, we used two and three intervals or labels, respectively, based on the authors’ extensive experience because the range of possible scores was limited (i.e., from 0 to 5). Thus, lower extremity ROM features (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 4, description of the measures obtained from the lower extremity ROM, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B170) as well as both reciprocal knee flexion to knee extension ratios and bilateral knee flexion and extension ratios (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 5, Description of the measures obtained from the isokinetic knee flexion and extension strength assessment, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B171) were discretized according to the previously suggested cutoff scores, whereas dynamic postural control (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 6, Description of the measures obtained from the dynamic postural control test, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B172), isometric hip abduction and adduction strength (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 7, Description of the measures obtained from the isometric hip abduction and adduction strength test, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B173), core stability (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 8, Description of the measures obtained from the core stability test, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B174), and isokinetic PT (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 5, Description of the measured obtained from the isokinetic knee flexion and extension strength assessment, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B171) features were discretized using the Weka unsupervised discretization algorithm.

Data processing

Although in Data Mining and Machine Learning, a wide range of paradigms have been used to tackle classification problem, only those that have been designed to deal with imbalance and high-dimensional data sets were used. These paradigms might be categorized into three groups (14,15):

  1. External approaches that preprocess the data to reduce the effect of their class imbalance by resampling the data space
  2. Internal approaches that create new algorithms or modify existing ones to take the class imbalance problem into consideration (ensembles)
  3. Cost-sensitive learning solutions incorporating both the data (external) and algorithmic level (internal) approaches assume higher misclassification costs for samples in the minority class and seek to minimize the high cost errors.

The taxonomy for external (oversampling), internal (ensembles), and cost-sensitive methods for learning with imbalanced data sets proposed by Galar et al. (14) and López et al. (15) was used to address the aim of this study. This taxonomy was implemented with the approach recently proposed by Elkarami et al. (30) because of the promising results showed to handle imbalanced data sets.

To achieve founded conclusions, four decision tree algorithms were selected to be used in the preprocessing, ensemble, and cost-sensitive learning methodologies: C4.5 (32), which is an algorithm for generating a pruned or unpruned decision tree; SimpleCart (33), which implements minimal cost-complexity pruning; ADTree (34), which is an alternating decision tree; and RandomTree (35), which considers K randomly chosen attributes at each node of the tree.

Hence, a decision tree is a set of conditions organized in a hierarchical structure. An instance is classified by following the path of satisfied conditions from the root of the tree until a leaf is reached, which will correspond with a class label.

For the sake of brevity and the lack of space, we have not written here the code of the algorithms used in this study. Instead, we have only specified the names and refer the reader to their original sources. Furthermore, all the classification algorithms used are available in Weka Data Mining software.

Although there are several data balancing or rebalancing algorithms, we used three of the most popular methodologies, which are the synthetic minority oversampling technique (SMOTE), random oversampling (ROS), and random undersampling (RUS). In brief, the main idea behind SMOTE is to create new minority class examples by interpolating several minority class instances that lie together for oversampling the training set. With these techniques, the minority class is oversampled by taking each minority class sample and introducing synthetic examples along the line segments joining any/all of the k samples belonging to the minority class, nearest to the sample i. Regarding ROS, it duplicates some random minority instances until the total amount of minority instances reaches the percentage given and RUS, contrarily, removes some random majority samples. In our case, a level of balance in the training data near the 40/60 was attempted. In addition, the interpolations that are computed to generate new synthetic data are made considering the k-5-nearest neighbors of minority class instances using the Euclidean distance.

Regarding ensemble learning algorithms, classic ensembles such as Bagging, AdaBoost, and AdaBoot.M1 were included in this study. Furthermore, the algorithm families designed to deal with skewed class distributions in data sets were also included: Boosting-based and Bagging-based. The Boosting-based ensembles that were considered in the current study were SMOTEBoost and RUSBoost. Concerning Bagging-based ensembles, it was included from the OverBagging group, OverBagging (which uses ROS), UnderBagging (which uses RUS), and SMOTEBagging.

Concerning the cost-sensitive learning algorithms, two different approaches were used, namely, MetaCost and the cost-sensitive classifier. We have only specified the names and refer the reader for further information to Galar et al. (14) and López et al. (15).

Regarding the number of internal classifiers used within each approach, all ensembles used the same 10 base classifiers (C4.5, SimpleCart, ADTree, or RandomTree) by default.

Finally, the behavior of some specific combinations of class-balanced ensembles with cost-sensitive base classifiers was also studied. The final cox matrix set-up was based on the best performance reported after testing all the possibilities.

Supplemental Digital Content 9 summarizes the list of algorithms (n = 68) grouped by families and also shows the abbreviations that have been used along the experimental framework and a short description of them. (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 9, Algorithms used in the data processing phase, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B175.)

To evaluate the performance of the decision tree algorithms, the fivefold stratified cross-validation technique was used (36). That is, we split the data set into five stratified folds maintaining the class distribution, each one containing 20% of the patterns of the data set. For each fold, the algorithm was trained with the examples contained in the remaining folds and then tested with the current fold. This value is set up with the aim of having enough positive class instances in the different folds, hence avoiding additional problems in the data distribution. A wide range of classification performance measures can be obtained from the stratified cross-validation technique. A well-known approach to unify these measures and to produce an evaluation criterion is to use the receiver operating characteristic (ROC) curve. In particular, the area under the ROC curve (AUC) corresponds to the probability of correctly identifying which one of the two stimuli is noise and which one is signal plus noise (15). Thus, the AUC was used as a single measure of a classifier’s performance for evaluating which model is better on average and was interpreted as high (0.90–1.00), moderate (0.70–0.90), low (0.70–0.50), and fail (>0.50) (37). Furthermore, two extra measures from the confusion matrix were also used as evaluation criteria: (a) TPrate: TPrate = TP/(TP + FN) also called sensitivity or recall, is the proportion of actual positives that are predicted to be positive, and (b) TNrate: TNrate = TN/(TN + FP) or specificity, that is, the proportion of actual negatives that are predicted to be negative.


Muscle injuries epidemiology

There were 32 MUSINJ over the follow-up period, 21 (65.6%) of which corresponded to the hamstrings, 3 to the quadriceps (9.3%), 4 to the adductors (12.5%), and 4 to the triceps surae (12.5%). Injury distribution between the legs was 53.3% dominant leg and 46.7% nondominant leg. A total of 13 injures occurred during training and 19 during competition. In terms of severity, most injures were categorized as moderate (n = 23), whereas only 9 cases were considered minor and no severe injuries were recorded. Three players were injured twice during the observation period, so their first injury was used as the index injury in the analyses. Consequently, 29 MUSINJ were finally used to develop the predictive models.

Predictive model for MUSINJ

Tables 1–3 show the average AUC, TPrate, and TNrate results for all resampling, ensemble, and cost-sensitive learning methods separately for each decision tree base classifier. The method that obtained the best performing result within each method is highlighted in bold. Furthermore, the model considered as the best for predicting MUSINJ is highlighted in gray.

Average AUC, TPrate, and TNrate results for all the decision tree methodologies in isolation and after having been applied in them the resampling techniques selected.
Average AUC, TPrate, and TNrate results for the ensembles techniques.
Average AUC, TPrate, and TNrate results for cost-sensitive learning and class-balanced ensembles with a cost-sensitive classifier techniques.

The ADTree base classifier showed the best performance in most of the methods analyzed. In fact, the final model was built using the SmoteBagging ensemble method with the ADTree as base classifier using reweighted training instance (cost-sensitive).

Therefore, the final model selected to predict lower extremity MUSINJ in professional soccer and handball players comprises 10 different cost-sensitive classifiers (ADTrees) and 52 features. See Supplemental Digital Content 10, First classifier, Graphical representation of the first classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B176; Supplemental Digital Content 11, Second classifier, Graphical representation of the second classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B177; Supplemental Digital Content 12, Third classifier, Graphical representation of the third classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B178; Supplemental Digital Content 13, Fourth classifier, Graphical representation of the fourth classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B179; Supplemental Digital Content 14, Fifth classifier, Graphical representation of the fifth classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B180; Supplemental Digital Content 15, Sixth classifier, Graphical representation of the sixth classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B181; Supplemental Digital Content 16, Seventh classifier, Graphical representation of the seventh classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B182; Supplemental Digital Content 17, Eighth classifier, Graphical representation of the eighth classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B183; Supplemental Digital Content 18, Ninth classifier, Graphical representation of the ninth classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B184; Supplemental Digital Content 19, Tenth classifier, Graphical representation of the tenth classifier of the predictive model for muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B185; and Supplemental Digital Content 20, Risk factor measures included in the model for predicting muscle injuries, https://links.lww.com/MSS/B186.

The cost matrix for cost-sensitive classifier was set to

where a false negative had a cost of 14 and a false positive had a cost of 2. In our case, the false prediction of a noninjured athlete was penalized seven times more with respect to the contrary error. This cost matrix was selected because it reported the best predictive performance in this particular scenario after having tested all the possible combinations.

The confusion matrix and the main cross-validation results of the final model are shown in Table 4. In terms of practical applications, each classifier has a vote (yes or no), and the final decision regarding whether or not a player might suffer an injury will be based on the combination of the votes of each individual classifier to each class (yes or no).

Confusion matrix and cross-validation results for the final prediction model.


The main purpose of this study was to develop an injury risk factor–based model that would identify professional soccer and handball players at high risk for MUSINJ by using learning methods from Machine Learning and Data Mining environments. With this aim in mind, a large number of personal, psychological, and neuromuscular risk factors were assessed during the preseason training periods and the MUSINJ accounted within the following 9 months were also recorded. Thus, and after having run and compared the performance of several preprocessing, cost-sensitive learning, and ensemble techniques to correctly classify players at high or low risk for MUSINJ, the model generated by the SmooteBoost technique with a cost-sensitive ADTree as base classifier reported the best evaluation criteria (AUC score, 0.747; TPrate, 65.9; TNrate, 79.1).

Functioning of the predictive model to identify athletes at high risk for muscle injuries

The ADTree algorithm has the advantage of producing models that are easily represented as a tree with a limited number of nodes (<10 in our case). This property is achieved by constructing a tree that is a conjunction of rules which all contribute real-valued evidence toward a given instance being classified as either true (injured) or false (no injured). Unlike traditional tree models, the classification of instances by ADTree is thus not determined by a single path traversed in the tree, but rather by the additive score of a collection of paths. The ADTree is graphically represented with two types of nodes: elliptical prediction nodes and rectangular splitter nodes (Fig. 1). Each splitter node is associated with a value indicating the rule condition: If the feature represented by the node satisfied the condition for a given instance, the prediction path will go through the left child node; otherwise, the path will go through the right child node. The final classification score produced by the tree is found by summing the values from all the prediction nodes reached by the instance, with the root node being the precondition of the classifier. If the summed score is greater than zero, the instance is classified as false (no injured).

Graphical representation of the first classifier. Prediction nodes are represented by ellipses and splitter nodes by rectangles. Each splitter node is associated with a real valued number indicating the rule condition, meaning that if the feature represented by the node satisfies the condition value, the prediction path will go through the left child node; otherwise, the path will go through the right child node. The numbers before the feature names in the prediction nodes indicate the order in which the different base rules were discovered. This ordering can, to some extent, indicate the relative importance of the base rules.

To better explain how coaches and sport practitioners should use the model to predict MUSINJ, we are going to explain the first classifier or ADTree using the fictional data displayed in Figure 1. In addition, Figure 1 represents in blue the paths followed by the selected instance or example.

In this classifier, we start with a baseline score of −1.252. The tree presents three father nodes placed up to the tree: APTISOK–KECON240°·s−1–Nondominant Leg, YBalance–Anterior–Nondominant Leg and History of MUSINJ last season. Each father node represents a pathway that must be addressed.

Then, and if we start by the father node numbered as 1, placed on the left and represented by the feature named APTISOK–KECON240°·s−1–Nondominant Leg, we realize that our player satisfies the rule condition; that is, he presents a score of >60° (Yes). Consequently, we must sum −0.497 to the initial score. Then, we have two different pathways that must be addressed. Thus, we first address the pathway that goes toward the node that contains the feature named PTISOK–KFECC30°·s−1–Nondominant Leg. Our player satisfies again the rule condition (Yes) because he shows a score ranging from 158.3 to 198.1. Therefore, we sum −0.755 to the baseline score. Until here, we have reached an accumulative score of −2.504 (−1.252 + [−0.497] + [−0.755]).

If we go back to the node number 1, and we follow the remaining pathway that goes toward the node number 3, we check that our player satisfies its rule condition, and then we add other −1.027 points to our scoreboard (−2.504 + [−1.027] = −3.531). Because the path is not finished, we must continue through the Yes path and reach the last node, represented by the feature Core-USNF. Here, our player satisfies again the rule condition, and we must sum 0.939 point to our accumulate scoreboard. It should be noticed that this time, the score summed is positive, and hence, our accumulative score would be reduced. Therefore, by completing this first pathway started in the node 1, we have reached a total score of −2.592. Once we have completed this first path, we must proceed with the other two primary paths, but taking into account that we have an accumulative scoreboard of −2.592.

Thus, and after completing the second main pathway, we must sum −0.246 (YBalance–Anterior–Nondominant Leg = No) and +0.689 (Sleep Quality = No) points to our scoreboard. Finally, we also have to sum 0.46 and 0.682 points coming from the third main pathway. All in all, our players have reached a global score of −1.007. The higher the global score is (in positive or negative way), the more confidence we are with the vote obtained.

Consequently, this classifier votes “Yes” and considers our athlete at high risk for injury. The final classification will be based on the combination of the votes of each individual classifier to each class (yes or no). In the very unlikely (but possible) case where a player ends with an equal amount of votes (i.e., five votes for no and five votes for yes), coaches and sport practitioners should adopt a conservative attitude and consider the athlete at high risk for MUSINJ. The rationale behind this recommendation for the unlikely case of equal votes is based on the reported high incidence rate of muscle injuries in professional sports (1–3) and on the cost that a false-negative diagnosis (low sensitivity) might have for team performance and player’s welfare as well as the economical cost for the club (38,39).

Discussion of the predictive model results

The predictive ability of the current model to identify athletes at high risk for MUSINJ (AUC score, 0.747; TPrate, 65.9; TNrate, 79.1) is similar to the one reported by the only injury predictive model published to date (from the authors’ knowledge) that was developed, thanks to the application of a supervised learning algorithm (decision tress) and whose predictive properties were analyzed using a resampling technique (i.e., threefold cross-validation) in a cohort of athletes different from those used for building it (40). Rossi et al. (40), after having collected (16 wk) and preprocessed data about training workload (kinematic, metabolic, and mechanical features) through GPS in professional soccer players, built a noncontact injury model with a tree-shape structure that reports a true positive and negative rates of 76% and 100%, respectively. In contrast to the model developed by Rossi et al. (40) that entails constant and individualized monitoring of each training session workload during the season to identify players at high risk for noncontact injury in the following game or training session, our model was conceived to be used as a single-session preparticipation screening tool for the prevention of muscle injuries, and hence, it is less time consuming and more injury specific. On the other hand, the predictive properties (i.e., AUC, true positive and negative rates, and false positive and negative rates) of the machine learning–based predictive model built in the current study are higher than those reported in other models from previous studies to predict sport-related injuries in which traditional approaches and less exigent validation processes were applied (41–44). Thus, and for example, van Dyk et al. (44) after having carried out a preseason assessment of the isokinetic hamstring and quadriceps strength in a large cohort of professional soccer players found that although the regression analysis reported the presence of two independent predictors that were associated with the risk of hamstring strains (hamstring eccentric strength and quadriceps concentric strength), the ROC analysis demonstrated an AUC lower than 0.6. Likewise, Smith et al. (45) stated that those athletes showing unilateral dynamic balance asymmetries (determined through the Y-Balance test) higher than 4 cm had 2.3 times greater risk of a subsequent noncontact injury in comparison with more symmetrical players. However, the reported percentage of the TPrate for this cutoff score was only 59%. Therefore, the application of contemporary statistical approaches from Machine Learning and Data Mining environments opens an interesting perspective for the construction of injury prevention models that are both accurate and interpretable, helping coaches, physical trainers, and medical practitioners in the decision-making process for injury prevention.

As it has been stated before, the model generated comprises 10 classifiers that contain the most relevant features (n = 52) for predicting MUSINJ. In addition, each feature presented in the model shows a binary rule condition (yes or no) based on a specific cutoff score. Therefore, we consider that the model meets the two requirements (i.e., identifying relevant risk factors and defining cutoff scores) established in the first step suggested by Bahr (7) to be considered as a valid screening methodology.

Thus, the predictive model built considers the devaluation of the self-perceived benefits gained from sport involvement as being one of the main factors associated with an increased in the relative risk of MUSINJ because it is presented in 5 of the 10 classifiers. This finding is in concordance with the results found by Cresswell and Eklund (46), who reported statistically significant correlations between sport injuries and feelings of sport devaluation in a cohort of professional rugby players. Although the mechanisms behind the relationship between sport devaluation and injury have not been well defined yet, it might be possible that old professional athletes with a short-term history of moderate-to-severe injuries would start questioning if the efforts made to achieve their current level of play are worth the benefits gained. These feelings of frustration might lead athletes to lose concentration and reduce the intensity of their actions during both training and match play, and thus increasing the risk of MUSINJ. Therefore, psychological therapies aimed at reducing athlete burn out could help to reduce the risk of MUSINJ in professional soccer and handball players.

Another strong risk factor reported by the model (presented in four classifiers) for MUSINJ is having a history of MUSINJ last season. Previous injury has been also identified in some prospective studies as one of the primary risk factors for MUSINJ (8–10). A possible explanation for previous injury being such a consistent risk factor for reinjuries may be that the joints or muscles in question are not fully restored structurally and/or functionally (18). Consequently, more studies are needed to (a) design effective rehabilitation programs after injury and (b) develop adequate return-to-play guidelines. Furthermore, evidence-based MUSINJ prevention programs should be applied at the beginning of a player’s sport career to avoid or delay the first MUSINJ as a high priority, to keep players from entering the vicious cycle of repeated injuries to the same muscle group.

Furthermore, the model built provides a main role to the isokinetic strength features measured through knee flexion and extension actions to predict future MUSINJ (30 features up to 52). These results are not in agreement with the findings showed by van Dyk et al. (44), who reported that the use of isokinetic testing to determine the association between strength differences and hamstring muscle injuries was not supported. A possible reason behind the discrepancy between the finding reported by van Dyk et al. (44) and our results might be associated with the different statistical approach used. Thus, although van Dyk et al. (44) carried out a clustered multiple logistic regression analysis to identify isokinetic variables associated with the risk of hamstrings injuries, we used an analysis that included not only isokinetic variables but also a large number of personal, psychological, and neuromuscular variables and took into account the different distribution presents in the class feature. It should be highlighted that our model endows a special protagonist for predicting future MUSINJ to the APT measured through concentric (quadriceps) and eccentric (hamstrings) knee extension movements, as they are presented in four and five different classifiers, respectively. This circumstance might support the hypothesis derived from the findings reported by Brockett et al. (47) so that where the players are able to achieve the PT, this might be more relevant than the net PT value to prevent MUSINJ.

On the other hand, another relevant isokinetic feature for our predictive model is the conventional knee flexion and extension ratio measured at 60°·s−1. Surprisingly, no functional knee flexion and extension ratio feature was included in the final models despite being more conceptually relevant for muscle injuries than the conventional ratios (mainly hamstrings injuries). In this sense, we categorized the functional knee flexion and extension ratios using the cutoff scores reported in the literature. It is possible that these cutoff scores that were calculated using different isokinetic methodologies may not have been appropriate (very restrictive) for our model and hence reduced its performance. Therefore, future studies should be conducted to explore a potential reason for this circumstance and attempt to establish appropriate cutoff scores.

Although with less presence than the isokinetic features, the classifiers that compose the predictive model include features from all the testing methodologies used, which might support the multifactorial character of the MUSINJ phenomenon. This characteristic of the model might support its congruence.

Finally, the feature sport (football or handball) was not included in any of the 10 classifiers that comprised the model for predicting MUSINJ. Furthermore, the same statistical analysis framework that was conducted in the present study was carried out in a preliminary study for soccer players solely, showing a less favorable predictive performance score (AUC score, 0.646; TPrate, 56.0; TNrate, 70.5 (unpublished data from our laboratory)). Therefore, it may be that data from athletes from different sport modalities, but who have similar movement demands, MUSINJ incidence rates, and injury mechanism, can be analyzed all together to develop a more generalizable model. Future studies should explore this hypothesis by analyzing and comparing the behavior for predicting MUSINJ of models built using athletes from different sports, collectively and separately.

Using the cross-validation process, we consider that the model might have met the second step proposed by Bahr (7). However, because of the reduced sample size, we think that more studies that reevaluate the predictive performance of the model using data from new players are necessary.


Although the model presented in this study shows moderate predictive scores, it should be acknowledged that more sophisticated algorithms (i.e., neural networks, genetic algorithms) might have developed models showing slightly better results than those found in the current study. However, the use of more complex algorithms would require sport medicine practitioners to carry out complex mathematical functions and operations, which might affect the practical application of the model built. Thus, and to allow sport medicine practitioners to implement the model in their screening programs, we decided to use decision trees algorithms as base classifiers because (a) they produce models that are easy to understand and carry out functioning for classifying instances (i.e., simple rules) and can be used directly for decision making, and (b) they have been widely used as base classifiers in some balancing, ensemble, and cost-sensitive learning techniques to deal with imbalance data sets.

The model developed in the present study was built with the goal of allowing sport medicine practitioners to accurately identify professional soccer and handball players at high risk for MUSINJ during preseason screenings. To address this issue, we used several predictors (risk factors) as well as external (oversampling) and internal (ensembles) methods and a decision tree (ADTree) as base classifier to build a model with moderate predictive accuracy. This set-up allowed us to build a robust model (AUC score, 0.747; TPrate, 65.9; TNrate, 79.1) which was also very complex in nature (black box approach). Therefore, although the model fulfills the goal for which it was built (making predictions), its complexity (10 different classifiers and 52 predictors) does not afford the opportunity to answer the question concerning why MUSINJ happen.

Another potential limitation of the current study is the population used. The sport background of participants was professional soccer and handball, and the generalizability to other sport modalities and level of play cannot be ascertained. Furthermore, the results reported in this study suggest that the feature “sport” does not influence the performance scores of the model selected, which might be due to the different sample sizes of both cohorts and the fact that only two different sports were analyzed. Therefore, from the current data set, we cannot draw strong conclusions around how mixing players from differing sports will affect the classification performance of the models and, more importantly, why and when we should mix players from differing sports.

Finally, it should also be noted that the model is dependent on the predictors used in the training process, and hence, practitioners must follow the same assessment methodologies used in the current study to replicate the current results and gain the applicability in their populations.


The current study has used an injury risk factor model to identify professional soccer and handball players at high risk for MUSINJ by applying a novel multifactorial approach and whose predictive ability has been determined through the exigent resampling technique called cross-validation. In this study, the MUSINJ risk model comprises 10 classifiers with a tree-shape structure and was developed thanks to the application of learning algorithms (on the training subsets) widely used in the Data Mining setting. Thus, the model reports an AUC score of 0.747 with TPrate and TNrate of 65.9% and 79.1%, respectively. We believe that the approach used here could replace the conventional statistical methods and can be used for coaches, physical trainers, and medical practitioners to gain valuable information in the decision-making process aimed at reducing the number and severity of MUSINJ in professional soccer and handball players.

Alejandro López-Valenciano was supported by a predoctoral grant given by Ministerio de Educación, Cultura y Deporte from Spain.

We certify that no party having a direct interest in the results of the research supporting this article has or will confer a benefit on us or on any organization that we are associated with. The results do not constitute endorsement by the American College of Sports Medicine and are presented clearly, honestly, and without fabrication, falsification, or inappropriate data manipulation.


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