As a young athlete, I started well enough and then began to suffer injuries. It seemed that I staggered from one lower leg mishap to the other over many years. Along the way I became known as the kid with the ‘bad ankles’. In hindsight I accept a good portion of that situation as my own doing, although I would not ever have admitted it at the time. An injury can make you thirst for health and I was too eager to get back into training and competing. It did frustrate and then depress me to be in chronic pain. Worse, when I met others at a competition, they would ask ‘how are the ankles?’ and I would put on an Eeyore face of doom and gloom. Not unlike those who are teased or bullied using body features, height or weight, I became an ankle. An ankle joint is maybe 1% of a body but it comes to represent over 90% if you let it. At that time I didn’t know how to say ‘I AM NOT AN INJURY’ out loud because I didn’t know who I was as an alternative.
If someone, at that time, had suggested that a big part of my injury issue was related to attitude I would have politely walked away and stayed away (No one ever did). Now, as a coach, I see glimpses of my old self (including physio tape by the box) in some of the coaches and athletes I meet. What I see are the behaviour patterns that indicate unhelpful attitudes towards injury. That used to be like me is the reflection I get. I also see coach-athlete situations that reflect a different set of attitudes towards the ups and downs of athletic pursuit, and I think, ‘that’s a bit like me now’.
Something changed in the intervening time that went beyond altering what was happening whenever I ran, jumped or threw. I went beyond the raw mechanics of movement and the compensations that result in injury. I learned to design programmes that weave prevention in with performance like a chorus within a song. And, I looked at my situation and started to develop what I used to call ‘people skills’. I started writing reflective journals and began to look around me at other coaches and athletes who did not seem to sink into despair whenever an injury occurred. Over time I started to see patterns and began to write them out. More importantly, I began to share my thoughts and related feelings with other coaches (the NCDP programme is great for this) and athletes so that I was able to turn foggy notions into language that made sense.
A journal article (Gould, Carson 2008) notes that skills such as decision-making and self-reflection can be acquired by athletes and used in other areas of life away from sport. For that to happen there has to be an environment that identifies and promotes the values, behaviours and attitudes so that the athlete makes them their own. Sport is one of those ‘for better or worse’ cultural activities where things like an injury can be used to positively support the recovery and restoration of the athlete’s ability to perform at their best. The following points or guidelines are directed at coaches as a ’digested read’ condensed from my journals. Develop an attitude, share an attitude, and then influence an attitude.
ONE: TALK ABOUT STUFF
A key coaching skill, perhaps THE key skill, is Communication Management = what to say and how to say it and really mean it. In the domain of coach-athlete relations we learn to interact with athletes using mundane and everyday features, expanding to technical and tactical areas. Over time we gain a sense of what is important to athletes at a public and personal level. We learn to use professional guides so that the private aspects remain at arm’s length. When an injury occurs, with its riot of pain and fear, the athlete needs to feel that they can trust and be open with their concerns. Professionals like hairdressers and bartenders know only too well how people will pour out their bottled personal and private lives because they’ve been silent with everyone else. A coach needs to remember that painful silence is not golden, it’s destructive.
TWO: LISTEN IN AND LISTEN OUT
As we mature we learn about our inner voice and hear all the outer voices that are directed at us. In today’s access to information and opinion, the outer voices have been multiplied a billion-fold. Amongst the voices of useless noise are the percentages that would control, coerce and even oppress us, so we need to develop filters that extract the information we need when we need it. A coach needs to nurture a team of professionals and establish reliable sources of knowledge from which information can flow with clarity and purpose. When injuries do occur, a team approach and good Information Management can be switched on without all the interference and noise of other voices. This attitude relates to personal management and leadership skills that require a passion for lifelong learning. Over time, our inner voice becomes our strong voice; confident, self-assured and definite.
THREE: THE GLASS IS FULL
Injuries have a way of altering how we view ourselves, our future and our goals. With chronic injury patterns a depressive state often ensues that starts as ‘not again’ and becomes ‘it will always be this way’. A coach may unwittingly enable this state by avoiding the issue or by actively sympathising with their own history. To side-step these traps a coach may employ a variation on the glass of water analogy. I always thought that the self-help proposition of half-empty or half-full was a bit coercive with its either-or option. For me the glass is full; always. What appears empty (air) is our creativity, potential and opportunities yet undiscovered. A coach needs to remember that they are always communicating. We cannot not communicate: our sentiments ooze out of every pore, and athletes pick them up. Better to adopt a positive stance of exploration and problem solving that re-establishes the pathway forwards than to dig a hole of despair.
FOUR: A STUMBLE IS NOT A FALL
Injuries happen. Many are predictable in hindsight or have a history, some are accidental and yes, a few are catastrophic. Along a sliding scale of things that can be modified and revised versus unchanging, injuries tend to be at the end where change and reformatting is possible. However, when sharp pains of an ankle sprain or a hamstring tweak strike us, our thought patterns shift instantly towards the unchanging end. What is a little stumble on a path becomes an emotional fall off a cliff. This ancient survival mechanism does not acknowledge that an athlete has been on a strong developmental and incremental route and is still moving forwards. Support from a coach can include reminding the athlete that a return to form and function does not involve starting at the beginning because of all that developmental background. For the athlete this is an attitude of self-efficacy: a kind of ‘yes I can, yes I can’ mantra that allows us to pick ourselves up, dust off any feelings of failure and start with little steps into the future.
FIVE: ACCEPT AND ACT RESPONSIBLY
The occurrence of injury can sometimes feel as though we’ve been thrown over a razor wire fence to land bruised and bleeding on the other side. We pick ourselves up, assess our sorry state and patch up the cuts. Then, because of uncertainty, we cling to the fence looking back. All of the what-ifs, should haves, would-haves and might-have-beens become our frame of reference. Over time this can become an unmoving state of nostalgia for the good-old-days. Some people simply never leave the fence and cannot accept their new situation; their new self. To turn around and move onwards usually requires a revision of personal outlook and performance goals. This is where a coach can play a valuable support role by adopting a better-best outlook themselves. This helps the athlete restore their vision towards the future and make realistic plans for a return to training and performance. At first this may be a daily or weekly outlook, but soon the uncertainties fade and the view becomes one of months and years. The attitude hiding in behind this is self-responsibility. The opposite is not irresponsibility but dependency…being dependent on others, systems, old thought patterns, delusions and our histories. Sound decision making, reflective thinking and problem solving strategies are hallmarks of self-responsibility that carry over into other aspects of our life and lifestyle. In this way an injury is not forgotten, dismissed or suppressed, but is transformed into one of the important threads in the tapestry of our life. Why? Because we learned from it, and then shifted our thinking.
These few observations may read like maxims or a proclamation of truths for all coaches. Sorry. They are just observations from a coaching view that has its own history and filters. They are collected bits and pieces from coaches who seemed to be able to do things and say things in such a way that the athletes grew and learned and shared with others. Regardless of how you may view these observations, they do manage to move the coaching experience beyond technique and results into information management, effective communication and ultimately, personal expression. There is always something to learn and then share. For me that is one of the delights of coaching development.
J. Erik Little
Reference: D. Gould, S. Carson (2008) Life Skill Development Through Sport: Current Status and Future Directions, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1:1, pp 58-78