The Injury You Can’t See

BenchAn athlete who is sidelined with a sports injury has to battle through more than the physical repair and recovery.  Downtime, where they aren’t allowed to participate or compete, is especially hard on an athlete who is used to being active and contributing, perhaps as a leader, to a team. Making them sit and watch from the bench or sidelines may be the worst kind of torture. What can we do?

Require their assistance and not just for menial tasks.

Tap them as ‘assistant coaches’ for games and practices. Engage them in the session planning and execution. Ask for their input with drills and observations. Perhaps they know something about the next opponent or your league rival that will be valuable in designing game strategy. If they’re up to it, have them coach a game or part of it, help set the line up or warm up the goalkeepers. Use them. That’s why they’re there.

Gradually invite them to participate.

Consult with team trainer or medical personnel to see what the athlete can do, even if they’re not fully cleared for play. Can they warm up with the team? Perform foot skill drills? Engage in non-contact scrimmaging? Find out what they can do even if they can’t go full speed. Then step them back into full participation. They’ll be better prepared and more confident when they make a full return.

Ask the athlete about more than the physical part of their recovery.

Often athletes are a bit reluctant when they return. They don’t want to get hurt again and you can see it in their movement. They may hold back or favor one side. They may have weaknesses or imbalances created from being in a brace or on crutches or just favoring a weak link. Expect this. Make it okay to admit they’re concerned or even afraid of going into a tackle again “given what happened last time.” Make this a private conversation and, in my experience, it’s healthy to get the truth out there.

I find the psychological often takes longer than the physical to mend and return to play. Look for this. The physical is black and white; the psychological is full of gray. The athlete wonders, “Can I still…? What if I don’t…?” The reluctance and insecurities kick in. It’s best if we acknowledge them. And help defy the insecurities. Here are some concrete things we can do:

  • Offer many repetitions where the athlete is successful.
  • Provide lots of honest, positive reinforcement.
  • Gradually increase the challenge, speed and skill required.
  • Gradually re-introduce contact and/or pressure.
  • If they falter, step back and work back up at a slower pace.
  • Once they’re cleared, put the athlete in charge of how much they take on by having them wear a ‘no tackle’ pinny that they take off when they feel ready for full contact.

By all means, engage their teammates in the effort to work the athlete back into the fold. You don’t need to coddle; they don’t want this. Honest feedback with an empathetic demeanor works wonders. “I know this has got to be hard” opens a good conversation when all they’re thinking is “I’ll never be the player I was.”

And when you’re considering putting them back in the lineup, have the conversation with the athlete. “How do you feel?” “Do you think you’re ready?” “Let’s try you for a few minutes in _____ position.” Establish a mutually agreed upon signal — thumbs up, thumbs down —  that gives you a real sense of how things are going. George Meyers’ coaches did a great job of this in supporting the young players’ return to play with Ocean City High school.

But the truth is, he’s not going to know whether he can do what he used to do until he does it. The first time is always the hardest. As coach or parent, you can help increase the chances they’ll fully return to form. Lend confidence, practice patience and be honest.

Then remember, as I mentioned in a previous blog, there’s often an upside to injuries. Be looking for that, too. Observe and reflect with them about the bigger lessons learned. Because that may be where the bigger growth lies.

Those five inches they just grew this summer; that’s nothing compared to all the growth we can’t see. It may be just the tip of the iceberg, 90 percent of which is under the surface. The integrity of that is what’s going to support them in the rest of what comes their way.

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