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How To Talk To An Athlete After An Injury

ByBrooke Olsen

4 min read

How To Talk To An Athlete After An Injury

If your child is an athlete, the inevitable reality is that they will experience an injury.

Five weeks into his sophomore football season, my son broke his elbow during football practice and was sidelined for the rest of the year.

Was it tragic? Yes. Having recently moved to the area, my son was relatively unknown in recruiting circles but had a singular dream of playing D1 football. A solid sophomore season of film was important to getting his recruitment rolling but, suddenly, that was no longer an option. Rather than stats and highlights, we shifted our focus to his recovery in order for him to return to the field stronger than ever.

Our first priority was finding the right medical team and repairing the injury as quickly as possible. Next, we turned to rehab, realizing that this would include rehab of his mind as well as his body. Injuries are trauma and trauma affects performance.

So, while we left the physical rehab to the professionals, we tackled the mental rehab ourselves. Through conversations with coaches and sports psychologists, we broke his mental rehab into 3 parts:

Emotion
Anyone who has experienced trauma or a loss knows about the 5 stages of grief: denial/isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

An injury is no different.

Your child may experience all of the stages or just a few, but it is important to let them know that whatever emotion they are feeling is totally okay. Tell them that you are available to help them process their emotions. And if they don’t want to talk about it, let them know that you are supportive and available for whenever they need you.

At the risk of being annoying, I made it a habit to “check in” with my son daily and would ask questions like;

  • “What does it feel like when your teammates are getting their ankles taped for practice while you are rehabbing your elbow?”
  • “What does it feel like to be in the locker room before the game?”
  • “What does it feel like to be on the sideline while your team is losing/winning?”

The importance of asking those questions was that it brought the emotion to the surface so that we could address it in real time and develop tools for self-talk, like;

  • “This rehab will make my elbow even stronger than before.”
  • “I’m more motivated than ever to do the things that will help my team win.”
  • “When I get a D1 football scholarship, I’ll know that I earned it.

    Identity
    A quick look into an athlete’s room or twitter account will show you that their identity is closely tied to being an athlete and a part of a team. When an injury keeps your child from being on the field, it affects how they perceive themselves.

    Encourage them to stay engaged. Their team is their community and, it is important to find a new role and contribute however they can while they are rehabbing. My son was an underclassman on a team with upperclassman who were exceptional leaders. He was fortunate to have supportive teammates and coaches who led him into a new role as an encourager during practice and games.

    As a way of affirming this new role, I would ask him about his teammates, with questions like:
  • “How is the offense looking?”
  • “What do you think the defense should be focusing on this week?”
  • “What is the WR/CB matchup looking like for Friday?”

Remind your child that this new role is temporary and support them as they channel their energy that would normally go towards competition to rehabbing.

Motivation
This is the fun one. Set micro goals and make them visible. It is important that your athlete sees progress so make sure they are attainable in the short term. Tape them to your child’s bedroom wall, put them on a white board and get excited when they hit their goals.

This is not the time to preach “All or Nothing." This is the time to say, “Anything is something."

For my son’s elbow injuries, there were critical time periods for regaining range of motion. If I’m honest, it was frightening. My son is a Tight End and he needs full
extension to catch balls. So, we set goals about the amount of time he would rehab each day and the degree of flexion that we wanted by Friday; all the while recognizing that the macro-goal was to be bigger, faster, stronger and in uniform.

Fast forward one year and my son IS bigger, stronger, faster and in uniform. Once he was cleared, he attended as many combines and showcases as he could to prove to himself and recruiters that he was healthy and could compete. He scheduled time with his QB to get film and submitted it to the GMTM Virtual Combine.

This past week, he committed to a Power-5 school and is more motivated than ever to help his team win games this season. Hopefully, he won’t have another injury. Realistically, I know that he likely will.

Fortunately, he now has a good foundation for how to respond if/when an injury happens again.


Brooke Olsen Roush is VP of the consulting firm, Know Your Strengths. She will tell you every year that the LA Rams are headed to the Super Bowl.

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