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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Minimizing Female Attrition Rates at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School with a Focus on Movement Based Risk Factors

It is no secret that female attrition rates at Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) exceed the rates of their male counterparts.  Anecdotal evidence indicates female attrition rates have approached (or exceeded) 70% for certain classes.  Although few are privy to the exact reasons for each candidate’s departure, injury sends many home. At times, stress fractures sometimes seem like an epidemic along with the incidence of knee and back problems.  These problems are not limited to Marine Corps OCS as they are found in candidate and recruit training throughout the entire armed services.   Furthermore, such issues are common throughout the female athletics.


The Corps has clearly recognized the troublesome nature of these numbers and has offered some formal guidance to future female candidates in terms of how to minimize injury risks and prepare themselves best for the rigors they will face. Not surprisingly, the greatest emphasis is upon improving upper body strength, since that is the area in which the females lag furthest behind the males. There has also been thorough investigation into the sites of injury and certain factors like bone density, nutrition, training status, run mileage, and long humps (marches) carrying packs.  However, there is little discussion of the movement based risk factors that can predispose females to an increased risk of musculoskeletal injury. The common injury sites are well known (shins, feet, knees, back).  Nevertheless, individual females who present with particular movement based risk factors but don't have an injury history that catches the attention of the medical staff are shuffled along the assembly line. Activities like carrying a bunch of weight in a pack during humps doesn’t cause injury; they only expose the underlying weakness (the same can be said for run mileage, and to some extent, bone density/nutrition).

Officer Selection Officers (OSO's) do a phenomenal job of remediating candidates deficient in upper body strength, but a female (or male)candidate with a prounounced movement dysfunction that hasn't manifested itself as injury is simply left to train hard and hope for the best.   Most likely the movement dysfunction will go uncorrected because such inquiry is outside the purview of MEPS.  Note, we shouldn't expect OSO's to have advanced biomechanical training to screen and assess movement based risk factors (just as professional football coaches don't run the weight room or design the team's conditioning programs).  However, since it is already common practice to "outsource" expertise in areas like running shoe selection (as candidates are often directed to a local specialty running store to select appropriate footwear), the same type of outsourcing can and should occur in the realm of injury prevention.

Cataloging the Risk Factors
In terms of specific areas, here are a few that don't get nearly the attention they deserve.  Although we'll address each individually, remember that the performance of each segment in interrelated.  Ultimately, a main purpose of movement screening is to identify a candidate's weakest movement link from which all other compensations and dysfunctions may result.  We believe the Functional Movement Screen is the best tool around which to build an assessment framework in this setting.

1. Glute activation. Because of the greater width of the female pelvis as compared to the male pelvis, females are at greater risk for lower extremity injury before they even take a step (see photo). There’s nothing we can do to fix nature, but we can make sure the glutes are firing to protect known sites of frequent injury in both the upper and lower bodies. If the glutes aren't firing correctly, movement in transferred into the lower back and knees both of which were not designed to support the weighted loads found nearly every day at OCS.

Any person (athletic, not athletic, male, female, etc) without adequate glute strength places themselves at risk for certain classes of musculoskeletal injuries; the world of OCS will simply magnify the consequences of this risk factor. Think of it this way...regardless of where you live, it pays to have a good foundation under your house. If you live near a body of water and in a high-rainfall location, having a robust foundation carries even more importance. Note that learning to fire the glutes is not a goal unto itself but instead forms the basis upon which female candidates can build more the more advanced movement skills behind performance measures (repetitions, time, loads). Which leads to....

2. Hip mobility. I won't say much about hip mobility because the concepts underlying glute activation apply in this area. However, I will say that we should never be too quick to assume that "core weakness" is strength issue. Instead, core weakness (or instability) is often the body's way of trying to generate movement when the hips aren't doing their jobs.

3. Ankle mobility. Candidates, both male and female, are given ample warning about the need for ankle mobility upon entering OCS. Having "sprain proof" ankles can literally be a career saver. However, my intuition says that the decreased emphasis upon distance running mileage in the physical training programming may reduce candidates' abilities to develop the tissue quality needed to absorb the multiplanar lower extremity shock that occurs while running on rocky and uneven trails.

Nevertheless, for females in particular, foot and ankle movement quality are especially important to support hip and knee function.  Lower extremity stress fractures are very common among the female candidate population, but we need to look beyond the extrinsic load factors (mileage, amount of weight carried) and look to the role that the foot and ankle play in some of specific movements encountered at OCS. For instance, it would be an understatement to say that candidates march a lot at OCS. While drilling on the parade deck is not as ubiquitous as in recruit training, candidates spend many hours driving their heels "into the deck." The ability to maintain ankle dorsiflexion (toes pointed up) is often an indication of posterior chain
extensibility.

4. Knee stability.

Knee stability, to a large extent, is the corollary of hip and ankle mobility. Most candidates probably know that knee stability is important, but knee mechanics often get overlooked in the chase for more reps or more speed in the short term, both on the PFT and in PT sessions. Valgus collapse or "knock knees," while common among female athletes, is also a biomechanical land mine.  Before progression to advanced loading progressions, candidates should follow the appropriate exercise progressions to improve this fundamental movement issue.


A Critical Part of Functional Fitness
The Marine Corps has made notable progress in the last decade in bringing PT out of the narrow realms of PFT training with pumping iron on the side. However, "Functional Fitness" is no more "functional" than the old limited paradigm if qualified candidates break before they hit the fleet.

No 2nd Lt. goes straight from OCS or TBS to becoming a Battalion Commander. The Corps doesn't say "Well, you have the basics of leadership, so here's a battalion command and you can figure out the rest once you get there." Just as OCS includes rigorous screening for leadership and a set progression for additional development, the same rigor for movement screening would be a positive step toward reducing injury risks of the female candidate population.

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