Getting hit in the face with a baseball that later develops into a fear of batting.
Experiencing an on-field football hit that results in a concussion and fear of going over the middle.
Erroneously missing a landing in gymnastics that leads to a catastrophic injury and fear of dismounts.
The above are just three examples of physically harmful events that can — and do — happen in sports at all levels. At any moment athletes can experience an injury, including injuries that are not only physically painful, but emotionally scarring as well. With physical injuries, athletes are fortunate that sports medicine provides countless remedies and solutions to help get the athlete back on the field again. But what about those injuries that include emotional trauma? While emotional scars are not always “seen,” they are regularly experienced by athletes, and herein lies the problem: How do athletes overcome the emotional stress associated with injuries that are both not visible, and may be perceived by others (i.e. coaches, teammates, and possibly even parents) as mentally weak?
PTSD & sports
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a shocking, dangerous, or traumatic life event. Examples include, but are not limited to, serious accidents, physical/sexual assault, war, and natural disasters. Symptoms of PTSD can include reliving the trauma through nightmares, avoiding people and places, increased anxiety and irritability, and depression. PTSD, like all mental disorders, is measured not by blood tests or other physiological measurements, but instead the affirmation of a series of clinical questions used to determine the severity of the mental distress and if it qualifies as a mental illness. What this means is that while some athletes may meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD following a scary sport experience, many others will not meet the threshold yet still develop an aversion, fear, or phobia toward playing their sport. Practically speaking, this suggests that even if an athlete is not diagnosed with PTSD, he or she may still be experiencing PTSD symptoms that interfere with the athlete’s sport and personal life.
Sadly, many kids have quit sports prematurely due to the emotional stress from a devastating sport experience (even if it does not meet the criteria for PTSD). In fact, some kids I have worked with at my office have experienced emotional trauma not from a contact event, but from being “dressed down” and humiliated by a coach or parent in front of the team. In these examples, the embarrassment experienced created so much anxiety that quitting was viewed as the best way to remedy the situation.
Tips to help
If you are a coach or parent and involved in youth sports, it is important to recognize the emotional problems that can develop following a critical physical/emotional on-field event. Encouraging the injured athlete with words like “toughen up and get back out there” may work occasionally, but if the trauma is severe those words alone likely won’t help in the long run. Instead, consider the following ideas to help:
- Understand PTSD. Mental health clinicians recognize that there can be serious emotional effects following a significant trauma, and that if left untreated can lead to long-term problems. Try to learn as much as you can about PTSD, and consider the potential consequences if left untreated.
- Show sensitivity to injuries that may lead to PTSD. Hard hits, injuries, and even devastating humiliation can all occur in youth sports, and all can lead to long-term mental health issues. Pay attention to potential emotional damage, similar to how you might view potential physical distress following an injury.
- Use community resources. Check around to see who in your community treats PTSD, and see if he or she has experience working with athletes who have experienced PTSD or PTSD-like symptoms. If you find a professional with experience in this area, you might even check with your AD to see if you can bring the professional to school for an in-service with your coaching staff.
Bumps, bruises, and injuries occur in sports all the time, but those are not the only challenges student athletes must overcome. Sports fears, phobias, and PTSD are just as concerning, and can prompt kids to quit sports prematurely if left unnoticed and/or untreated. The best advice is to pay attention to both the physical and emotional aspects relating to sports injuries, and treat each with equal care so that kids can maximize their youth sport experience.