Put me in a conversation with any athlete and we’ll all say the same thing about injury. We avoid injury at all costs because injury means not playing and not playing is usually not an option.
Which leads me to the question: how do athletes avoid injury? We could cite many answers to this such as training, nutrition, recovery practices and regular care like physical therapy and massage…but in the end, I’m going to pose an idea you may or may not like.
In my experience, there is no such thing as avoiding injury in sport. There is only delaying the inevitable. Joints were not designed to repeat sport specific motions day in and day out without being damaged. By design, sport unbalances the body. On top of that, the insatiable call to achieve, pushes athletes to their mental and physical limits.
Think of a pitcher’s pitching arm. There is a big difference in muscle tone, strength, and mobility (the range of motion in a joint) that pitching creates on one side of their body vs. the other. Think of a golfer’s spine and the amount of rotation it endures over a lifetime of play. And how about a dancer’s hips, and the degree to which they extend well beyond any natural range of motion?
The musculoskeletal imbalances our training gives us – the very imbalance that each sport requires for success – inevitably produces damage or overuse injuries to the soft tissue and bony structures of our joints.
If we define injury as, damage done, or dysfunction created in a physical joint or to a mental process, then the truth is undeniable. Injury is the risk we accept when we choose the reward of playing our sport.
Why am I talking about this? Am I saying sports aren’t healthy? Do I think we need to stop playing and promoting them?
I want to challenge the myth that an athlete can prevent being injured. If we all acknowledge the truth, maybe we can stop living in fear of injury and start working more efficiently and honestly to minimize the risks sports naturally create for the body and mind.
All sports demand imbalance for you to achieve. All sports require repetitive motion well beyond any standard of daily movement. Because these two statements are true, I want to point to how we make matters worse for ourselves.
Everything we do has a risk and a reward. I’m framing sports as a road to injury to highlight the one practice all athletes share that amplifies our risk Can you guess what it is?
The Sport Experience:
Organizations, coaches and even fans and parents may deny it, but there is no mistaking that the culture of sport drives athletes to push through pain. Working as hard as any athlete does is NOT going to be comfortable, mentally or physically. Think back to the first coach, teacher or trainer you had, who talked to you about the difference between being in pain and being uncomfortable…
What starts out as a well-intentioned pep talk about knowing the difference between pain vs discomfort – over time – becomes a regular daily practice of ignoring pain.
Somewhere along the way, we stop listening to our body’s signals – aka. the emotions, the sensations and the undeniable discomforts that are designed to protect us. The longer we play, the better we become at ignoring the very pain signals that warn us an injury is imminent.
Research done on dancers even suggests that until there is a loss of function and our sport performance or our daily life is affected, athletes do not admit to being in pain and seek help for what’s been chronically ailing them.
For some of us this takes months and for others it takes years. Bottom line: the more you ignore your body’s signals, the faster you head to the injury you want to avoid most.
If you see some sense in the idea that ignoring pain can lead to greater injury, then please keep reading.
Your first step in this journey is to acknowledge that what I’m saying here is without blame. It is NOT sport’s fault, it is NOT the horrible coach you had one season, and it is NOT your fault. The truth that injury is a part of sports is a shared responsibility amongst us all.
That being said, there IS one aspect of the sport formula that you can control and that is yourself.
If playing through the pain and/or ignoring emotions and sensations to stay focused is part of your current experience – the first step is knowing that you do this and becoming aware of how often it is happening. Awareness always comes before action and once you see how deeply this practice is embedded into your experience, then we can talk about what it looks like to make a new choice.
For now, think about the idea that ignoring your body’s signals could lead you to injury even though that’s the one thing you want to prevent.
Notice when and how often you push through or ignore feelings, sensations or signals from your body.
You don’t need to be actively playing to be perpetuating the habit of ignoring yourself. I guarantee, this is a lifetime habit that follows all athletes into every area of their lives.
Need proof? Listen to this podcast with Coach Deanna of @thewinningelement to hear another athlete’s story that when she tried to stop the pattern of pushing through pain and discomfort, she actually wound up doing it again – years and years after she stepped away from D1 Volleyball.
We are collectively responsible for the culture of sport and personally responsible for how it impacts our lives. My hope for you, and everyone involved in sport, is that we look at how we can improve our experience and reduce the impact of the risks inherent in doing what we love.
When we take steps to make changes for the better, like the athletes of #weareunited who stood up for their health and wellbeing before the start of the 2020 college football season, we make things better for everyone.
It’s time to collaborate with ourselves. It’s time to listen to pain and discomfort. It’s time to take ownership of the risks we assume when we choose to play sport. It’s time to ask for the support we need to accept the risk with empowerment and protection instead of fear and avoidance.
Love the sport. Accept the risk. Listen to your body and ask for help sooner.
Be empowered to change these habitual patterns of behavior for the better so we can all change the culture of sport to be safer, more supportive and more inclusive of considering the needs of each athlete as much as the needs of each sport.
Sending you love and courage for our journey on this day and every day!