Injuries are a part of sports, and the longer your child competes in sports, the greater the odds he or she will eventually experience an injury. In most cases the injuries kids experience are minor in nature, and after a little rest and medical attention (if needed) they are back out on the field in no time. But what about the more serious injuries that keep kids out of action much longer? Are there warning signs to watch for when it comes to emotional struggles and distress? And what are the consequences when parents miss these signs?
Physical and mental aspects of injuries
When an athlete experiences an injury almost all of the attention immediately goes toward the physical aspects of the injury, and rightly so. Minimizing the pain of an injury is vitally important, and repairing torn muscles and broken bones are obvious immediate concerns. The good news is that with medical advances today, most kids get over the physical pain of an injury quickly, and their bumps, bruises, and broken bones improve more quickly, too. Sports medicine has really come a long way over the years, and kids today benefit from treatment/rehabilitation options that were only available to elite-athletes just a generation ago.
When it comes to mental and emotional recovery relating to a sports injury, however, the issues can be much more complex to understand. For example, kids don’t usually shout out “I’m depressed!” when it comes to their mood state during rehab. Unlike a visible cast or knee brace, emotional difficulties aren’t always easy to see — even for the most concerned and observant parents.
Student athlete concerns
When a kid deals with an injury in sports, there are several fairly predictable concerns they experience, including the following:
- Athletic identity. Often kids develop a personal identity revolving around athletics — and sometimes this identity is exclusive to athletics. How will he or she deal with not being an athlete (temporarily or possibly long-term)?
- Sport retirement. In some instances kids experience sport injuries that prompt them to retire from their sport. When this occurs, not only is their identity impacted, but if they had aspirations of playing at the next level it’s possible they will need to re-think their future plans, too.
- Coping with the injury. Prior to experiencing a torn ACL, most kids have never had a torn ACL! What this means is that most injuries are new to kids, and they have little to go on when it comes to the medical process, rehabilitation, or how they will play once they are eventually cleared.
- Losing a starting spot. Many kids experience increased levels of anxiety while worrying if they are going to lose their starting spot on the team while dealing with their injury.
As you can see, even though mental aspects relating to sports injuries are more difficult to see, they are equally stressful (if not worse) when compared to the physical aspects of an injury. In fact, when the stress relating to a sports injury goes unnoticed kids become more at-risk for poor coping, including alcohol/drug use, anger, reckless behaviors, and even self-harm.
3 big warning signs for parents
My experience has shown me over the course of my career that, generally speaking, parents know their kids better than anyone (even though they may not always feel this way). Drilling deeper, I believe that parents have an intuitive sense when it comes to their kids, and while they may not always be able to reconcile their intuition with conflicting observations on the surface, there is a voice telling them something isn’t right. Sometimes our logical brain tells us “Nah, he’s doing just fine,” but our intuition says the exact opposite — that it just doesn’t feel right. I encourage you to listen to that voice, even if logic tells you not to.
Below are 3 big warning signs that parents should look for when watching their child deal with a sports-related injury:
- Mood state. As you might have guessed, kids who deal with injuries are more at-risk to experience depressive feelings. Sometimes a kid will come out an tell you directly that he’s depressed, while in other instances you will need to pay attention and determine if he is acting like he normally does. Additional subtle signs to watch for include swings in eating and sleep patterns, dips in grades at school, and increased isolation from friends and family.
- Frustration/anger. Student athletes who miss time due to injury can sometimes experience spikes in frustration and anger, and this is often related to fear of the unknown. How long will I miss time? Will I lose my starting spot? Are all my potential college scholarship opportunities going to be gone forever? Not knowing the answers to these questions can lead to mental health issues and poor coping, and it is not uncommon to see otherwise calm individuals become short, disrespectful, sarcastic, or even deliberately rude to others while dealing with their own inner pain.
- Poor coping. How people cope with stress varies dramatically, and this is no different when it comes to kids and how they deal with their sport injuries. It is important to note that often when we are stressed we look for various “mental breaks,” or time-outs from thinking about the challenges in front of us. Unfortunately, drinking and using drugs provide these escapes, even if they aren’t healthy methods for dealing with stress.
What parents can do
If you are a sports parent and notice some of the signs I discuss in this article, try and see if you can sit down with your child and talk openly about the troubling signs you have witnessed. Be calm, listen closely, provide support, and most of all try an empathize with what your child is experiencing. This is also a good time to help normalize what your child is experiencing, and even discuss professional mental health options as a route many athletes pursue when dealing with an injury. What parents shouldn’t do is assume this is no big deal, ignore warning signs, or add to the stress by expecting a fast recovery when it’s obvious time is needed to fully heal.
Sports injuries can be a big deal, and odds are your child will experience one the longer he or she plays. What advice do you have for parents with a kid dealing with a sports injury? What resources have you used that have helped?