In the 1996 Olympics gymnast Kerri Strug sprained her ankle on her first vault landing. All she needed to earn a gold medal was a clean vault, which was exactly what she did after spraining her ankle: Strug performed a vault with an injury, landing on one foot. Competing or performing with an injury is common in world of athletics at any level. Strug’s story, as well as many other athletes who have overcome adversity, hold not only a special place in history but also in the eyes of society. The athletes are looked up to as heroes for sacrificing their bodies for the glory of a win. This mentality contributes to the pressure many athletes face to play through an injury at all costs, and negatively contributes to their bodies and mental health. Hiding injuries and/or playing through the pain is not only hurting the injury and prolonging it, but could also lead to more serious problems later on.
From athletes’ perspectives, they are training to control and master their bodies. When injuries occur they may view it as just another part of the body that needs to perform a certain way. An injury may also cause them to view their body as something to fight against. The injury may seem like a form of betrayal because their body is not cooperating with the demands, but in reality the body is telling the host that it needs a break.
Athletes tend to avoid their injuries because they do not want to take time off. For professional athletes, playing through injuries is the norm—their sport is their job, and if they have to take time off, many feel as though they aren’t fulfilling their responsibilities. This, as well as the threat of being replaced, factors in to playing while they are injured. It’s reasonable that they play through injuries; they have everything riding on their athletic abilities. As a result, if the injury is something that won’t end their career, they will risk their health for the reward. However, even though athletes play through the pain very often at this level, they are aware of potential risks. Athletes view those who can accept that they are injured as brave. Former NBA player Alvin Williams stated, “They’re the real courageous ones, because they’re the ones who are going to be able to come back. They’re setting an example that they’re more than an athlete. And, paradoxically, that’s what’s going to make the best athlete, the best organization, the best everything.” Athletes know that playing on an injury is not the best option yet this is not what they are taught or encouraged to do.
In a study of 3,000 athletes, coaches, and parents, 42% of youth athletes said that they have hidden injuries so they could play, which could lead to more serious complications as they grow up. Kate Carr, the president of Safe Kids Worldwide sums it up perfectly, “The awareness we have about injuries and the risk to our children is not matching the behavior that we’re seeing on the field.” Although winning is an important aspect of sports, it should not be something to risk children’s health for. The restriction requiring athletes to be pulled if they have a suspected concussion and the reduction of contact and checking in youth sports are both steps in the right direction for the reduction of injuries as a whole. Now the task is to create an atmosphere where it is the norm to report injuries.
In “Playing through the pain: Psychiatric risks among athletes,” Drs. Samantha O’Connell and Theo C. Manschreck look at the vulnerability in athletes regarding psychiatric health. One of the factors that drives this is how athletes express pain (which for many cases they don’t). Hiding physical injuries could be the gateway into athletes hiding other health issues as well, specifically related to mental health. Athletes may fear that seeking help will make them look weak and threaten their status as an athlete or with their team. This could lead to further problems with their mental health. O’Connell and Manschreck state that playing through pain may be influenced by pressures from coaches, scholarships or parents, but ultimately it has to do with the pressures the athletes puts on themselves to achieve.
When athletes view injury as a weakness both to their identity as an athlete and their performance, this can cause greater health issues regarding injury as well as mental health. Advise your athletes to sit it out if they are in doubt. While sitting out may not be fun for a game or two, it is better than never playing again or having it affect you or your athletes off the field. This view of injury in professional sports may not change soon, but you have the ability to change how you and/or your athletes view injury.