Preventing injuries is even more important than helping athletes recover from them. Despite how much coaches know about athlete performance, monitoring strain, endurance, and numerous other factors, there’s one factor that’s often overlooked.
For example, an athlete suffers a hamstring tear when sprinting. Coaches review the footage and see poor form. The next steps are putting a recovery plan together, and supporting an athlete during the healing process.
Coaches also review the technique and aim to correct a player’s movement strategy.
However, it could be argued that this is the wrong approach. Yes, coaches still need to ensure an athlete recovers, and a player’s movement strategy is corrected. But, that’s often focusing on the symptom, rather than the underlying issue.
Before we proceed to the key factors coaches are missing, check out how they approach this problematic at Malmö Redhawks Ice Hockey club. In this XPS Stories episode, we have spoken to Jonathan Bengtsson, the Head of the Medical Team, about how they use XPS Health to not only report, but also to prevent injuries.
What Key Factor are Coaches Missing?
Many performance practitioners, coaches, and sports psychologists would argue that the underlying issue is an athlete’s emotional state and subconscious.
Could an athlete’s emotional state impact movement patterns, resulting in injuries?
Yes, it can. Human bodies rarely choose movement patterns that are suboptimal, resulting in injuries. Especially athletes, those skilled in moving in ways most people can’t. Unless there’s other factors that are impacting performance, such as an athlete’s emotional state and subconscious.
Think about when you’re tired. Are you clumsier? Forget how to do things you’d normally manage easily?
Of course you do. We all do.
Athletes are the same.
Despite vast amounts of movement best-practice knowledge, teaching athletes running and sprinting form, muscle group’s mechanics, and strength protocols, hamstring and other injuries still happen.
Evolution plays a part in this too. If you think about where most athletic injuries happen — calf, hamstrings, low back, neck — they’re at the back of our bodies.
Evolution and Survival
Why do injuries happen at the back, rather than the front?
Everything vital to human survival is — eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, and reproductive organs — at the front of our bodies. Think about when we fall, or if someone throws a punch, we are hard-wired to protect our face and front.
Taking this analogy further, when a fighter is taking a beating and is knocked to the ground, he will always protect his head and front. Humans instinctively know we need to protect the front of our bodies and head. It takes us less than a second to put our hands up to cover our face, or put our hands out to prevent more serious injuries if we fall.
Understanding this hard-wired evolutionary survival factor should lead coaches to some important realizations when it comes to injury prevention.
Injuries and Psychological Factors
Firstly, coaches, sports scientists, and training practitioners need to understand that injury prevention isn’t simple. It doesn’t all come down to managing training loads, sprinting techniques, and muscle strength.
No muscle or athlete ever gets injured alone, and nor do athletes heal alone, either. Too often, coaches focus on individual movements and muscle groups, instead of looking at the bigger picture.
For example, a player says they’re not feeling great, or are tired. What happens next?
Perhaps a coach will talk to them and a flag will be raised in a performance management system.
However, if a player is underperforming during a screening test (sit and reach, or sprinting, etc.), they will get more attention from support staff. Such as, more specific warm ups or time in the physio room.
Psychological factors and concerns, whether tiredness, feeling unwell, or low moods, are often overlooked compared to physical underperformance and concerns.
And yet, how many times have coaches noticed that athletes reporting they “aren’t feeling their best”, suffer injuries, or underperform during training and in competitive games?
How many times have you noticed that happen, as a coach?
Probably more often than you realize.
Despite the fact that players fill out wellness questionnaires, coaching teams rarely act on the information collected. Psychological factors aren’t given as much weight and importance as physical injuries or performance issues. Coaches need to change this mindset and approach to injury prevention: factoring in and supporting athletes emotional wellbeing more effectively.
How Coaches Can Support an Athletes Emotional State
A groundbreaking study 30 years ago — Williams and Andersen‘s Stress-Injury Model — and one that’s been reinforced by numerous studies since (Ivarsson, 2008; and Angoorani, 2019) put psychological factors and emotions at the center of their injury prediction model.
23% of injuries to elite athletes during a season are often caused by one or more of these factors:
- Life event stress
- Negative coping (poor coaching, and a tendency to worry)
Another study found that injuries during soccer games often happened within 5 minutes of something occurring on the field, such as a red card, another player being injured, or a goal.
Emotions are a key factor in injury prevention, and an undeniable reason why injuries occur.
Coaches need to start including athletes’ emotional state as an integral part of health and readiness monitoring. If a player is saying they’re feeling unmotivated, tired, stressed, anxious, upset, or another negative emotion, this should be treated with the same seriousness as a physical injury.
There’s a good chance, and numerous studies show that overlooking these factors could easily result in injuries. Or a player performing poorly, contributing to a game being lost to an opposing team. Injury prevention means taking a holistic approach, and we, as sports professionals, need to give serious consideration to the emotional state of our athletes.