As we continue to actively study and understand the safety risks student athletes assume playing contact sports (including serious brain injuries), a second, less noticed psychological concern might warrant similar attention. Specifically, student athletes who experience on-field injuries are often left in an incredibly challenging, often confusing position: Speak up and report an injury in order to receive medical attention, or succumb to pressures relating to not being tough enough and stay in the game.
While many coaches talk in general terms to kids about mental toughness as it applies to on-field success, rarely do these conversations focus specifically on the unexpected, unplanned stress that happens to kids when experiencing injuries while competing. As a result, most student athletes are caught off-guard when feeling the effects of an on-field hit and not knowing exactly what to do when it comes to reporting their concerns to coaches. Reporting injuries immediately prevents conditions from worsening, but is there a price kids pay by looking weak when they excuse themselves from games because of injuries?
New research studies have shown a strong link between repeated head hits and brain trauma, including CTE. In response to these research findings, leagues have improved rules for on-field play, as well as directed more attention toward better sport equipment options. In addition to these efforts, it is equally important that we help student athletes develop the confidence needed to speak up about their injuries without fear of negative future consequences, or worry that they will look weak to their teammates.
No pain, no gain!
Although we are seeing a positive, changing paradigm as it applies to sport safety today, there are still some coaches, parents, and student athletes who ascribe by the old thinking that pain and discomfort are simply mental toughness challenges, not reasons to seek medical attention. “No pain, no gain,” is a previously popular mantra that pushed athletes to fight through pain, and to only remove themselves from games when absolutely necessary. In some instances this way of thinking may have elevated athletes to achieve personal and team goals, but it’s also short-sighted to not think many of these same athletes likely compounded and/or worsened their injuries by not getting the medical attention they needed in that moment. Today’s way of thinking appears to be changing toward a safer, healthier way of attending to injuries by responding sooner, but this new modality has left some athletes to feel at-risk for not looking brave fighting through their pain.
The stakes are too high
In the old days an athlete who fought through a muscle cramp probably didn’t risk much future permanent damage, but with what we now know about head injuries the stakes have become too high allowing athletes with concussions to remain in the game. What this means is that not only do coaches need to be acutely aware of signs for concussion, but that they also talk overtly and often to their student athletes about the importance of coming out of games when necessary. Getting a few more plays out of an injured kid simply isn’t worth the long-term consequences the kid might face years down the road, especially as research continues to provide disturbing evidence of the magnitude of head injuries in sports.
The next steps
As we continue to develop and improve safety measures for student athletes, it is equally important that we expand the scope of our attention to include the psychology relating to how coaches and kids identify and respond to sport injuries. How do coaches impress upon kids the importance of speaking up without fear of negative future consequences, and how do kids gain the confidence needed to report injuries without worry they will lose their position, or be viewed as a weak athlete? A few ideas for developing a healthy dialogue with coaches and kids include the following:
- Discuss sport safety as much as X’s and O’s. Obviously coaches should focus on developing sport skills and game plans to help student athletes perform at a high level, but this doesn’t have to come at the expense of having ongoing discussion about the risks sport injuries pose – especially head injuries. It is important for coaches to talk openly about safe training measures, as well as the realities student athletes face by not listening to their bodies and ignoring obvious medical concerns.
- Be clear about protocols for student athletes who think they might be hurt. Telling kids that reporting injuries is one thing, but actually showing them what to do and how to do it will really drive home this lesson. Make sure kids know signs and symptoms to look for, methods for letting coaches and trainers know about their concerns, and options available to them should they experience injury concerns.
- Assure student athletes they won’t lose their spot because of injury, nor viewed as weak for speaking up. Remember, many athletes today still ascribe to the idea that pain and injuries are simply barriers to work through, not signs that an athlete might benefit from medical attention. Student athletes will experience far less anxiety when coaches talk directly about how it is a sign of courage and strength, not weakness, when athletes speak assertively about their concerns relating to sport injuries. This message can be strengthened by ensuring that kids will not lose playing time because of an unforeseen injury, a philosophy that used to be the norm in sports.
- Emphasize long-term safety over short-term game success. Student athletes not only play below what they are capable of when injured, but they also run the risk of long-term, permanent damage when they ignore injuries that clearly warrant medical attention. Coaches can help by driving home the point that kids are not hurting the team by asking to be removed, especially if removal prevents a long-term injury from developing.
While it might seem like the only way to toughen up as an athlete is to play through pain, the reality is that it makes far more sense to properly address injuries than to ignore them. While pushing through obvious injuries might make great sports movies, the reality is that athletes who ignore physical pain increase the risk for long-term (and sometimes permanent) serious health problems. Help athletes understand that while it is important to play hard, it’s even more important to play smart by addressing injuries in a timely manner.