A National Alliance for Youth Sports resource helping coaches, parents and administrators provide the best youth sports experiences for children.
From the sidelines to the action: Returning from an injury
By Ker’Shyra Myrick
Injuries in sports are no fun and the road to recovery can be long and hard.
When a young athlete is injured, returning from that injury can be difficult to overcome – both physically and emotionally – especially if it’s a severe one requiring surgery or rehab.
We caught up with Dr. Kristen Dieffenbach, associate professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University and an executive board member for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, to get her insights on the challenges that accompany helping young athletes transition back into the action while managing fears of being hurt again.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How hard is it for young athletes to return from an injury, mentally and physically?
DR. DIEFFENBACH: Return to play is hard for athletes of all ages. A child’s environment is key to their successful return from an injury. How did adults respond when the injury occurred? Is there pressure on the child to come back? These things can stress a young athlete out.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: How soon should athletes return, even if they are medically cleared to play?
DR. DIEFFENBACH: This depends on the type of injury. A lot of attention should be paid to the athlete and their readiness. If they are 100 percent cleared, then let them be the guide and pay attention to how they respond and ease them back into practice and play. If it was a serious injury, let them take part in less intense activities and build back up to where they were before.
Sometimes kids may lie because they do not want to get pulled from playing, even though they are limping or feeling pain. This is when the conversation between the coach and the parents needs to take place. If the child is not ready, keep them involved with the team. Let them shadow the coach; walk around on the field. It is important for them to have support from their teammates and to keep them engaged with the team so they will not feel left out.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Should coaches give preferential treatment to players returning from an injury?
DR. DIEFFENBACH: The coach is responsible for the health and well-being of all players. The coach has to be aware of each player and should avoid giving preferential treatment to any player. Checking with an injured athlete who is returning from an injury is important. Coaches need to know what is going on with their players on and off the field, and they need to make sure minimizing injuries is their top priority. The coach needs to talk about injuries being inherent to sports; if something hurts or doesn’t feel right, the athlete needs to feel it is safe to let the coach know.
Young athletes should feel that everyone on the team is valued and has something to contribute. This needs to be talked about up front and at the beginning of the season. Help young players understand that if they are injured, someone will play in their spot. This doesn’t mean they aren’t still important to the team. Reassure them that they will have an opportunity to play once they are well enough to return.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What are some mental practices an athlete can go through to overcome the fear of being hurt again?
DR. DIEFFENBACH: An athlete has to make sure they understand how the injury happened. This will help the athlete take a deep breath and focus on what they can control, like improving their balance or learning how to fall or take a tumble safely rather than stress about things beyond their control like a rainy field. Focusing on developing quality skills that they are good at can help reducing injuries and re-injury. Controlled breathing and on the field relaxation skills are also great mental practices athletes can work on with help from a coach as increased anxiety leads to tense muscles, which in turn increase the risk of getting injured.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: What can coaches and parents do to help kids move past the injury and not allow what happened in the past to affect them now?
DR. DIEFFENBACH: Injury is an unfortunate part of sport and while it is up to the parents and coaches to help make the experience as safe as possible, injury experiences can also be opportunities to help athletes grow and develop. Most importantly, believe a child when they say they are injured. Children typically don’t fake an injury; unless there is something wrong. It could be physical or it could be related to a more psychological cause, like fear of letting people down or bullying. Regardless, it needs to be addressed. With a physical injury, listen to doctors and coach’s recommendations on getting a medical clearance. If a coach thinks the injury should be evaluated, take it seriously. If a doctor thinks the child should take it easy for a little while, listen to them. Seek advice from the appropriate professional, such as an AASP certified sport psychology consultant who works with young athletes, if the child needs more support in returning to play.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: Is there a difference in the way girls and boys respond to returning from injuries?
DR. DIEFFENBACH: Differences tend to be more noticeable by sport and level of play. In the more traditionally male sports there tends to be less pressure on young girls to be high performers early. Girls are given more permission to cry, whereas boys are told to suck it up. However, in other sports such as gymnastics, the pressure on young female athletes to train and perform through injury is well documented and dangerous to the long-term health of the athlete.
SPORTINGKID LIVE: When a player is seriously injured should the coach talk to the entire team about how injuries sometime happen since seeing that would scare some kids, or is it best to not draw extra attention to it?
DR. DIEFFENBACH: Yes – if someone on their team gets seriously hurt, be up front with kids. They observe everything and take it all in. Ideally, it’s best not to wait until an injury happens to talk about it. It is the coach’s responsibility to keep kids safe. The best thing a coach can do is be open with their team about injuries and be clear in practice about the things the team is doing to help reduce injuries. Allow them to be anxious and let them know, ‘if you are nervous this is what we are going to do about it’ and be clear on the things they can do to play both safe and smart.
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