I say this all the time, but it’s worth repeating: you cannot prevent injuries 100%. If you see something about a program that says it prevents 100% of injuries, it’s just marketing slogans.
The goal of training is to reduce the risk of injuries and the severity if you do get injured. One way to reduce risk is by properly strengthening the body. Another important element in risk reduction is by developing athleticism. It may seem like an ambiguous objective to some, but athleticism can be taught. Kids need to know how to put their bodies in the right positions at high speeds. Understanding things like center of gravity, momentum, leverage and angles all come into play.
So, coaching speed is not just about helping athletes be faster, but getting faster safely. However, there is always the potential of injury. When you’re training and injuries or potential injuries occur, what do you do? Let’s talk about a proper response to pain.
Injuries happen one of two ways: contact or non-contact.
Even the greatest athletes in the world suffer non-contact injuries. A recent example that comes to mind is when Rafael Nadal, one of the best tennis players in the world, had to withdraw from the Australian Open early in the tournament due to a hip flexor injury.
Non-contact injuries, which are typically lower body injuries, are the main type you’re hoping to avoid. An athlete can be in good shape having trained consistently and still suffer a non-contact injury.
It’s worth noting that the term “non-contact” is misleading, because the foot contacting the ground counts as a type of collision. So, whether an athlete is striding or stretching, there is stress being put on the body. A shoe can slip, slide, or even get stuck, causing a chain reaction of energy transfer that leads to something getting torn.
Then, there is the brutal reality that sports are dangerous and plenty of injuries result from contact. I’m sure the majority of our audience has become familiar with the Damar Hamlin situation when he suffered commotio cordis, a sudden blunt impact to the chest causing sudden death in the absence of cardiac damage. Albeit rare, it’s a reminder that even when playing a game, recreational or competitive, there is still inherent risk.
While I have spent years helping people young and old recover from injuries, I need to take the time to clearly state I do not give medical advice, nor does the information in this article take the place of a consultation with a medical professional. Even though I study and give advice, I stay in my lane and trust certified practitioners to officially diagnose and prescribe as I hope you would.
The purpose of the following discussion is to share my approach on a subject I get asked about often, specifically pertaining to soft-tissue muscle injuries. This isn’t a discussion on pain related to stomach aches or headaches. In a world where everything is a symptom, I know not everyone feels 100% one-hundred percent of the time. Just know, we’ll keep this discussion to training injuries.
If you followed the NFL playoffs, you probably have an idea of what I’m talking about when I say someone is playing through something.
Two stories leading up to the Conference Championship games were the quarterbacks for the Chiefs and Eagles, to different degrees, were playing hurt. Yeah, so are the rest of the players on each team. It’s five months into an NFL season, everybody’s got something.
However, early in the NFC game, Brock Purdy got injured when his arm was hit. Even though he returned, he was legitimately injured. There was no injection or pain medication that was going to fix what we now know was a complete UCL tear.
On a whole different level are head injuries. You saw at least one player from each game leave for a concussion. Don’t mess around with those. The moment you observe a potential head injury, remove that athlete immediately. Follow those protocols strictly.
As a former head football coach, if I saw something that didn’t look good, game or practice, my first response was to have them go see the trainer immediately. I commend all the coaches who were ahead of the times on caring for athletes in a world where the Junction Boys was a pervasive mentality.
As for soft-tissue issues, pain is our body’s way of communicating a problem. Every athlete will be subject to some kind of pain, strain or sprain at some point. The tricky part is identifying the sometimes vague differences between pain and discomfort. There are times when an athlete might experience discomfort because certain muscles aren’t activated, not necessarily due to an injury.
The pain is a warning to be smart. The problem is that you as a coach or parent can’t actually feel what the athlete is feeling.
I’ve always believed that open and honest communication, especially when it relates to potential injury, is critical between coach and athlete. That is a culture you, as a coach, are responsible for creating.
If you have an athlete communicating they are experiencing something minor, don’t just quickly dismiss it. Gather what information you can and decide what level of participation is appropriate at that moment.
One of the most important things you can do is implement proper protocols for minor stuff just like I’m confident you have implemented for major stuff. This is where preparation pays off.
The easiest protocol: when in doubt, see Doc. It’s not worth being right or wrong. In this instance, it’s presumed the athlete is experiencing significant pain.
On the other end of the spectrum, maybe you’re dealing with a minor acute injury like when an athlete rolls his/her ankle. Maybe they feel tightness. Allow for an athlete to attempt to “walk it off.” We’ve all been there where there was a scare, but nothing serious, right? What I recommend in this scenario is to put that athlete in the back of the line, or let them go last. Don’t allow the circumstance to slow the group. Training must go on. Once the athlete jumps in and tries it, they’ll know if they are good or not.
**QUICK NOTE** We know our kids/athletes better than anyone. You know the kids who you believe are tough and you know the kids who you believe may be…less tough. DO NOT ALLOW for a double standard. Treat every situation with the same level of care. It’s not for you to decide if a kid is “faking it.”
Back to our discussion–If the athlete believes the pain can’t be tolerated, then have options for them to work on core if their day running is over. Even if they want to participate, you can evaluate their next reps and use your discretion on whether they can keep going. If an athlete is clearly hobbled, pull them out of the drill.
If it’s a muscle that could just be tight, script routines involving equipment like mini bands that can target the area. When muscles are properly stretched and activated, it could alleviate tightness that was causing discomfort. I know time is often a factor, but this is another reason to not skip warm up and lead up.
As for lifting after an injury has occured, find exercises for the athlete that will do no harm. Remember, muscles are responsible for certain movements. Avoid the movement patterns that engage the hurt muscle, especially as a primary mover. Sometimes it is as simple as, if it hurts, don’t do it!
Once an exercise menu is established, the sets and reps need to be created. There can be many combinations. Reps may need to stay up around 15+ with light weight. Once the initial pain levels have subsided and range of motion returns, I tend to alternate between muscular strength days and muscular endurance days. In this context, strength sessions involve sets of 8-10 and endurance sessions are sets between 20-30.
Once your sessions are over, it is up to the athlete to be disciplined in their recovery. The basic recovery principles apply:
1. Ice and Heat - both serve a purpose. A trainer can advise if one or both is best.
2. Physical therapy - a therapist can prescribe stretching and strengthening exercises for an athlete to do when at home.
3. Rest - Rest is best. Sleep will always serve a valuable purpose in recovery.
4. Hydration - Staying hydrated is equally important so the body is equipped to heal.
Until next time, train smartly!-CBK