Bruised elbows, skinned knees and occasionally even broken bones are a part of nearly every kid’s childhood. Whether it’s riding a bike, climbing trees, chasing friends during a game of tag or playing youth hockey, kids have a tendency to throw caution to the wind when they’re having fun.
Thankfully for parents, the majority of injuries are minor and kids are back playing in no time at all. But what about those times when a couple band aids and an hour or two of taking it easy aren’t enough to recover?
We sat down with one of TRIA Orthopaedic Center’s sport neuropsychologists, Dr. Lisa Nippoldt-Baca, Psy.D, LP, to discuss how kids handle injuries in youth sports from a psychological perspective.
Minnesota Hockey: What is the most difficult part of coping with injuries for youth athletes?
Dr. Nippoldt-Baca: Loss of identity – for kids in sports, it’s who and what they are. Their designated sport is what they are doing multiple days per week, if not daily. A lot of times an athlete’s team becomes his or her circle of friends, and also the circle of friends for parents. When you take that away it can cause spikes in levels of anxiety and even depression. The perceived loss of identity is important to address within the context of the injury to help the athlete re-capture who they are once the sport is taken away from them.
MH: If that’s the case, how important is it for players to stay involved while dealing with an injury?
Nippoldt-Baca: It’s extremely important. First and foremost, kids in general do well with routine. When you take the sport or practices away, you are interfering with their routines. It can be helpful to simply be present at practice if symptoms allow.
It’s also important for them to be there emotionally so they can be going through the plays in their mind and continue working on their mental game. With every sport, there is both a physical and mental component. Keeping up with the mental conditioning is important so when they are ready to resume physical play, it isn’t as difficult to keep up with their teammates.
Lastly, being with teammates socially is hugely important because there is a lot of team building and camaraderie. Athletes can also feel left out or left behind when they are out with injuries. Attending team meetings, social gathering outside of the sport, traveling for a tournament or even sitting on the bench are all ways athletes can participate while injured, provided their symptoms allow for it.
MH: What can athletes do to take an active role in their recovery?
Nippoldt-Baca: Following your medical providers’ advice is the best thing an athlete can do to heal more quickly. It’s also a matter of communicating and being honest with themselves, their caregivers, and the parents regarding their symptoms.
Kids in general may try to push it too far too fast. They may wake up in the morning and their injured head/knee/ankle feels better so they jump back in, even though their doctor told them to hold off for a few weeks. Listening to the medical providers instructions, resting when needed, being active only when they are allowed to be active, and then also following through with physical therapy exercises when prescribed are all essential for a quicker recovery
MH: There’s a culture in athletics, particularly as players become older and more competitive, in which players want to be viewed as tough by their teammates and coaches so they can be tempted to play when they shouldn’t. How can we help young athletes learn where that line is so they don’t hurt themselves more?
Nippoldt-Baca: Educating the parents and coaches is the biggest part because we can’t expect the kids to make those types of decisions independently. Children and teens aren’t always the best at thinking through the consequences of their actions, so we need to teach the parents to be supportive and not push the child too far too fast while healing is still taking place.
I often tell athletes to give us one game and we’ll give you the rest of the season. We want them to understand that if they sit for one week they can be playing at full strength more quickly than if they try to power through an injury.
Whether the injury is orthopaedic or concussive in nature, pushing through it can be detrimental to the athlete’s health and the team’s progress. It’s important for parents, coaches, and athletes to be aware of this, as it can affect long-term goals and progress.
MH: What can athletes do to make the transition back into play (“getting up to speed”) quicker and easier?
Nippoldt-Baca: Follow the medical providers’ orders. Oftentimes, this involves staying active within reason. Depending on the injury, it’s important to make a gradual transition back into the sport. Athletes should never try to do this alone, rather they should consult regularly with their physical therapists, athletic trainers, and physicians regarding when it is safe to increase the intensity and duration of exercise.
Taking care of their emotional health is also essential for a quicker recovery and a more seamless transition back to play. Oftentimes people think the psychological effects of sports injuries are all in the athlete’s head (stress, nervousness), but increased stress actually changes your brain chemistry. This change can lead to headaches, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, which can actually prolong the recovery.
MH: What are some of the best ways parents can help athletes deal with injuries?
Nippoldt-Baca: Enforcing what is being recommended by the trainers, therapists, and medical providers. This includes encouraging them to do any prescribed therapy, being supportive emotionally and not pushing them physically or emotionally. Everyone recovers at a different pace, so not putting a timeline on when an athlete should be back is important.
Another important role for parents is having their eyes on the child during his or her recovery. The athlete may say everything is normal and that he or she feels great, but they might be going to bed early, not eating, not spending time with friends, or showing other uncharacteristic changes in behavior. Parents know their children better than any provider, so it is important for them to advocate for their child when interacting with medical professionals. Watching for signs of physical discomfort when the gradual return to play is happening is also helpful since others may miss subtle cues.
Providing the athlete with emotional resources is also important for parents during the recovery period. If you are worried that your child is not coping well emotionally with the injury, don’t be afraid to get the help that he or she needs. This may be as simple as talking through their feelings over dinner, doing relaxation exercises at home, allowing them time with friends, or consulting with a psychologist or counselor if needed.