What to do with an Injured Athlete

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Injuries are inevitable in any sport. As Coaches, we need to be able to recognize when an athlete has suffered an injury and how to handle that injury moving forward. 

When injury does occur, try not to evaluate or diagnose what the injury is or what is causing the pain. Listen to the athlete’s concerns and reported symptoms, and help them decipher whether it is really pain or if it soreness/tightness. 

Depending on their background, they have either been exposed to musculoskeletal pain or they have not. And yes, soreness and tightness can cause pain, especially in a once or recent sedentary individual. Poor mobility and muscular tightness can lead to pain or discomfort of particular joints, but isn’t necessarily an injury.

Do be careful what and how much you communicate your thoughts to the athlete. You want to provide them helpful information, but you want to be aware of claiming you know what exactly is wrong without holding an orthopedic injury background. If you do have an athlete that is injured and is experiencing pain, please refer them to the proper health care professional.

Keep Them in the Gym

Now, just because you have an athlete that is injured, that doesn’t mean they need to take time off at the gym or stay away from upper body if they have an upper extremity issue, and vice versa. The most important thing will be to keep that athlete moving. Through all the frustration of having to switch things up or modify movements, the last thing you want is that athlete to get out of the gym. 

Modification also tends to have negative connotations. Urge athletes that modifying does not make them any less of an athlete and does not mean their training is taking a step back. While the athlete is injured, encourage them to come up with some different short term goals that can still be attained while they are recovering from their injury. 

Despite the degree of their injury, every injury takes a toll mentally and physically. Keep in mind, the athlete may tend to have different outlooks on things and may experience more frustration and anger than normal.

Focus on Endurance and Strength in Injury

While an athlete is injured, some of the key factors to focus on and maintain are endurance and strength in that body part. You may be thinking, “OK, that’s a no brainer.”

But when an athlete is injured, the easy way out is to say, “Don’t do that” or “Stay away from that.” Injuries can also be classified in many different levels. You can have strains and sprains of different severities, impingement, weaknesses, asymmetries, tears, and these injuries can span across every joint and muscle in the body. 

For fun, let’s take a shoulder impingement injury.  Specifically in the shoulder joint, impingement is typically a result of a narrowing of the space between the acromion and the shoulder joint. In impingement, as the shoulder flexes, especially above 90 degrees, the tendons that pass through the sub acromial space become pinched between the joint space and the acromion. This is mostly due to inflammation of the tendons caused by over use, repetitive movements, poor posture or poor mechanics.

If you have an athlete with this injury, be wary of completely shutting down that limb.  In the first initial days, or when the injury is very inflamed, complete rest to that limb for two to three days may be warranted. In the long run, shutting that limb down could hinder the healing process. 

On these days, don’t just stay away from upper body and do lower, work on single arm movements, whether that be dumbbell clean and jerks, single arm overhead squat, dumbbell push press or even a single arm battle rope.  By working the non-involved side, we will still see activation and gains in the involved/injured side. 

Modifying for an Injury

Now backing up: when we are looking at modifications for this athlete, look at what they can accomplish without pain. In this instance, let’s say everything below 90 degrees is fair game. If this athlete has impingement, they likely need to work on some scapular stabilization. Incorporating pendlay rows into a workout will allow them to focus on that stabilization while also still using the injured limb. Maybe the strength portion of their day, they focus on an isometric bent over row with a superset of supine banded pvc lat pull downs. Medball cleans, suitcase deadlifts, farmer’s carries and isometric farmers holds focusing on pulling those shoulders back and down would also greatly benefit this athlete. 

Injuries do need to be treated delicately, but don’t shy away from using that involved limb. Make things specific to the athlete. Work in the scapular stabilization work and RTC cuff work they need, but also get creative.  Instead of some strength work one day, have them do interval runs or shuttle runs to help increase their VO2 max and maintain their endurance. Make sure you have specific goals you and the athlete want to achieve so it feels like you are building toward something and not just randomly changing up workouts. 

Injuries occur all the time, and sometimes, no matter how much you prepare, there is no avoiding them. When an injury does occur, make sure that athlete sees the appropriate health care professional. As they are recovering or rehabbing from the injury, keep that athlete working hard and under intense conditions. Maintain their endurance and work in pain free ranges of motion to keep that body part working. The last thing you want is a frustrated athlete to leave the gym. Continue to encourage them through the process and give them opportunities to show themselves that are they still making progress despite their injury.

Rubie Gaudette
Rubie Gaudette MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, CF-L1. Rubie is an athletic trainer at IMG Academy where she works with the boys soccer program on prevention, mobility, rehabilitation and return-to-play protocols. She received her Master’s Degree in Athletic Training from Western Michigan University. She is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA and is also a CrossFit Level 1 trainer. Contact her at rubie.gaudette@gmail.com.