Help Young Athletes Stay Mentally Strong During Recovery
By: Melissa Lambert
Any young athlete who has experienced injury knows what it’s like to struggle during recovery. Not only is there physical dysfunction, but the psychological issues of not playing can be harder to overcome. According to the Center for Disease Control approximately 3.5 million U.S. children under the age of 14 are injured during sports related activities and overuse injuries are responsible for half of all youth sports injuries. In addition they are the second leading cause of emergency room visits for both children and adolescents.
Children of all ages participate in sports with the goal of having fun while parents hope their child with reap the benefits of building self-esteem, peer socialization and overall fitness for health. There is always a risk of injury however it’s necessary to pay attention to predisposing factors that may increase the likelihood of injuries to occur.
Reasons for injury include specialization in a sport at an early age, an imbalance of strength, improper equipment or environment, intense and repetitive practices without proper rest and doing too much too soon particularly during growth spurts. Youth often know enough when something is too much and will continue to push even if the result is painful. In a sport driven society, it is no longer about experimenting but rather picking one sport to focus on. With sports like soccer, baseball and basketball being available to play all year long there is not enough time for rest. Then add a lack of education about the right equipment and poor conditioned fields, the chance of injury sky rockets.
A majority of injuries may only take several days or weeks to heal but that time in recovery takes a toll on multiple levels. Children who have experienced one injury are at greater risk to get injured again in the future. Understanding how the injury occurred to begin with and taking precaution physically is only half the battle.
It’s important as coaches and adults to understand the psychological impact injuries can have on all young athletes regardless of their athletic ability. Children and adolescents with low tolerance for their injury may present angry, frustrated and irritable. They may also be in denial about being injured and return too quickly to the playing field only to get reinjured. Others experience feelings of guilt that they aren’t able to help their team and isolate themselves. Some athletes will get depressed and feel worthless if they feel the sport is a significant part of their identity while others boast about their athletic accomplishments to fill the void of wishing they can play. An athlete who gets constant attention for their success on the playing field may struggle with the lack of accomplishment when the attention is no longer on them during the recovery period. As coaches and parents, these are behaviors and symptoms frequently missed. To help athletes overcome the physical and emotional struggles associated with injury there are four key tips to remember.
Educate yourself on the physical and emotional stages of child development.
This is one of the most important steps in preventing injury all together. Too often parents and coaches push children into a sport in hopes of obtaining the positive outcomes including confidence building, problem-solving and friendship, but if a child is not developmentally ready then participation can have the opposite outcome. A child who appears to be physically ready may not be emotionally ready. With the push from many parents to help their child become the elite it often involves the push to move children up in age groups and take on additional club teams. The question to ask would be whether the child would be able to handle the developmental adjustments as well as understand the technical and tactical aspects of the sport comfortably? Children who present shy or maybe have difficulty with concentration may not be ready for a particular sport or age group. Studies have shown that athletes with higher anxiety and stress with a limited ability to cope are at a higher risk for sustaining athletic injuries (Weinberg & Gould, 2011). By taking a proactive role in understanding the stages of development and building a positive relationship with the child, coaches should be able to identify those children who may be at a greater risk of injury.
Teach age-appropriate methods of coping and identify a positive support system.
This should be a fundamental aspect of all children regardless of involvement with sports and establishing methods of coping with difficult situations should be positive. Coping is the ability to manage something successfully whether it’s a child dealing with a case of bullying or feeling angry as a result of failing a test. Sports often used as a positive outlet for both children and adolescents with their number one motivation being to have fun. However, in an immediate situation or if an injury occurs that prevents the child from participating in the sport there must be alternatives for managing the situation. The use of positive self-talk, relaxation techniques and communication with a trusting support system will be crucial to the recovery process. Positive self-talk includes educating athletes on how to take control of their thoughts. In frustrating events people tend to resort to negative thinking but with practice focusing on positive statements, feelings about the incident will change as a result. For example, a child may think about losing their starting spot and how they can’t support their team. The opposite would be for the child to focus on coming back stronger and prioritizing their need to be healthy. Having a positive support system can help the child facilitate these thoughts, increase motivation for recovery and enhance overall mood. As coaches and parents it is important to know who the child’s support system consists of and ways they help facilitate their ability to cope appropriately.
Assess youth goals early when getting involved with a sport and reassess if an injury occurs.
Goal setting will the biggest influence on an athlete’s motivation based on their motivation to get back to the playing field. Motives for playing in middle and high school include staying in shape, getting exercise, love to compete, to improve skills and be a part of the team. It is necessary to note that girls rate staying in shape and exercising higher on their list of priorities over boys who want to improve skills and compete. This isn’t to say girls don’t like to compete and boys don’t want to stay in shape but helps when determining an athlete’s motivation to participate. Knowing a child’s goals early will help in the recovery process to assess if any changes need to be made. As stated earlier some youth receive a lot of positive reinforcement and feel confident when playing a sport so it is necessary to look at other areas and strengths where an athlete will get their need met. This can consist of school, activities at home and achieving outcome goals during the actual recovery process. Goals should also be recorded by the athlete that are specific, realistic and include achievement strategies or action steps needed to meet those goals. Young athletes will not only have a sense of control and responsibility in working towards those goals but adults can provide additional support.
If an injury occurs, continue positive reinforcement in other areas outside of sports.
As discussed under goal setting, many athletes depend on the attention they receive from either their success on the playing field or just being a part of the sport culture. All young athletes have intrinsic and extrinsic motivators from playing sports even though they are not always positive. Some kids may continue playing because they don’t want to deal with an upset parent or feel they disappoint them if they quit. Others feel a sport is a part of their identity and have built a great sense of accomplishment around progress they have made. If an injury occurs that prevents the same outcomes of athletic success and attention, there needs to be a focus on other areas. This isn’t about coddling and reinforcing helplessness, but rather teaching athletes that they can be talented in multiple areas and receive positive reinforcement in those areas. All humans need attention, a sense of accomplishment and time for play. This especially holds true for athletes who present depressed and have a harder time accepting injuries. These are kids who will return to the playing field too soon or increase their risk for reinjuring themselves.
By utilizing these steps, parents and coaches can have a positive impact on the recovery process of young athletes. Understanding the various stages of child development, reassessing goals and identifying a strong support system are key components in assisting them to overcome injuries. With proper physical conditioning and emotional support, athletes will be able to return to their sport feeling confident in their abilities and decrease the risk for further injury.
DiFrori, J.P., et al. (2014). Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports. American Medical
Society for Sports Medicine. www.cjsportmed.com.
Weinberg, R.S. & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology (5th, ed).
Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
About The Author
Melissa Lambert is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the state of Connecticut and is currently the Clinical Manager at an Extended Day Treatment Program supporting children with emotional and behavioral issues. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Eastern CT State University and Masters of Education in Clinical Psychology with a concentration in child and adolescent Psychology from Springfield College. Melissa’s experience includes working with children in a partial hospital program setting, in-home therapy, running support groups for families with children diagnosed with Autism, is an agency trainer for Therapeutic Crisis Intervention, certified in the 7 Challenges Model for adolescent substance abuse, certified in Life is Good playmakers (play therapy curriculum) and implemented a jump rope program used weekly in group therapy for children. In addition, Melissa is Certified in as International Youth Conditioning Specialist Level 2, currently is columnist and presenter on sport psychology topics for the organization, a columnist for Coaches BC magazine and Today’s Parent USA. She is also the Director of the Performance Training Clinic for CT Coast Soccer.
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