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Helping Students Report Injuries Without Fear of Looking Weak

By Christopher Stankovich, Ph.D. on May 09, 2018 hst Print

As leaders continue to actively study and understand the injury risks that student-athletes assume while playing contact sports, including the risk of concussions, 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 students about mental toughness as it applies to on-field success, rarely do these conversations focus specifically on the unexpected, unplanned stress that happens to those athletes when they experience 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 student-athletes pay by looking weak when they excuse themselves from games because of injuries?

Research studies have shown a strong link between repeated head hits and brain trauma, including concussions. In response to these research findings, leagues have improved rules for on-field play, as well as directing more attention to better sport equipment options. In addition to these efforts, it is equally important that 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 there has been a positive shift in the paradigm as it applies to sport safety, there are still some coaches, parents and student-athletes who ascribe to 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 shortsighted 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. Fortunately, 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 in 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; however, with what is now known about head injuries, the stakes have become too high to allow athletes with concussions to remain in the game.

As a result, not only do coaches need to be acutely aware of signs of concussion, but they also need to 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 player simply isn’t worth the long-term consequences the individual might face years down the road.

The next steps

As safety measures for student-athletes continue to be improved, it is equally important that more attention is given to psychology relating to how coaches and students identify and respond to sport injuries. How do coaches impress upon athletes the importance of speaking up without fear of negative future consequences, and how do these student-athletes gain the confidence needed to report injuries without worrying that they will lose their position, or be viewed as a weak athlete?

A few ideas for developing a healthy dialogue with coaches and student-athletes 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 that 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 students about 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 they know signs and symptoms, methods for letting coaches and trainers know about their concerns, and options available to them if they have injury concerns.
  • Assure student-athletes they won’t lose their spot because of injury, or be 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 student- athletes 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.