Purpose2Play: One of your athletes suffers a season-ending injury, and she’s devastated. What steps should you take to help soften the blow of her lost season?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: When athletes suffer those serious injuries it can be overwhelming for them, the team, and even you. Step up and help your athlete keep the injury in perspective with the rest of her life. It is imperative to drive home the importance of the player following the doctor and physical therapist’s directions. Next, let her have her feelings. She is going through a huge loss, so you’re probably going to see her go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Let her express her feelings and thoughts in a safe place where she is supported by you and the team. Emphasize all that is going well in her life, help her see how much she can learn from this situation, and remind her that before she knows it, she’ll be back on the court, in the pool, or on the field. Continue to reinforce this situation as an opportunity to grow stronger mentally and emotionally. A coach friend of mine said it this way, “Make this a time to train her heart and her mind, instead of physical skills.”

It is also important to address the loss of this player with the team. Help them get over their fears of having something like this happen to them. The chance of losing a player emphasizes the importance of setting team goals that area not dependent on any one player. That way, when a player gets hurt or is out for the season the team can still work toward meeting their team goals.

Purpose2Play: How can an injured athlete (who must sit out of practices/games) still contribute to the team in a positive way, and how can you convince that athlete to take on a new/important role? 

Dr. Cheri Toledo: There are at least three roles that the injured player can take on. First, personal rehab and skill development: what can he do with a cast on that will increase his skill level? When I was playing college basketball, an opponent stole the ball, ran to the other end, and went up for a lay-up. With no one around her she came down and blew out her ACL. She was also a star volleyball player. I remember seeing her the next fall during warm-ups at a match standing and hitting down balls – a no-jump overhand attack. She came back ½-way through the season and had a deadly attack arm swing. She did everything she could do to improve her skills while she was in the cast. Think through all the skills that your injured player can do even though he is limited by the injury.

Second, what can he do to support the team at practices and games? Can he toss balls to hitter, play catch, toss balls back to free throw shooters, run the stopwatch or clock, or take practice and game stats? If he’s not mobile because of an ankle, knee, or hip injury, bring in an office chair on wheels and give him the mobility he needs to participate. Encourage him to be the motivational spark from the bench.

Last, make her an assistant coach. Give her opportunities to contribute what she sees from the sidelines during time outs and in between games.Be specific with the role you are asking her to fill and listen closely to her input. Then coach her through the process – when she is right, give her praise; when she is wrong, explain and teach. An injured friend told me that this is what her coach did and it turned out to be so fulfilling that she became a coach.

This player’s misfortune can be turned into an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the value that each player has, whether they are stars or subs.  Their worth is defined by their effort and attitude. Being on a team is all about being part of a community where each person gives and receives support, acceptance, and camaraderie.

Purpose2Play: It happens all too often. An athlete wants to come back from injury too soon.  After consulting with medical professionals, the athlete is cleared to start practicing again, but is not yet cleared to play in games. How can you minimize his risk in practice, all while building up his confidence again?

Dr. Cheri Toledo: Educate yourself on the anatomy of the injury. Find out the exercises that the athlete is doing in physical therapy and replicate those in practice. Ask the doctor, physical therapist, and/or trainer what the limitations are. If the player has been working on his skills, as mentioned above, slowly have him start doing the movements and skills that he was not able to do during his rehab.

Remember that physical recovery is only one part of him being ready to play. He still needs to recover mentally and emotionally. He needs to fight through the fear of getting injured again – in fact, some players might be dealing with a post-traumatic stress reaction. The original injury was so devastating that they replay it and focus on the fear that it will happen again. So start him out slow and let him set the pace to return to full speed.  For some players you will have to push them through their fear – they won’t be able to do it on their own, so they will have to lean on their trust for you. Other players you will have to hold back so they don’t push to far and reinjure themselves. It’s a balance that you can help them with by communicating and watching for cues.

Purpose2Play: Many young athletes are playing their respective sports competitively year round, which makes overuse/fatigue-related injuries more common. Talk about the benefits of giving rest or easy days as it relates to both injuries and rebuilding mental strength.

Dr. Cheri Toledo: I believe that players who play more than one sport as youngsters will have much better skill sets when they get to the elite levels.  One way to ensure that your players aren’t burning out physical or mentally is to include other sports in your practices. For instance, my Assistant Volleyball Coach at Stephen F. Austin State University, Tim Toon, now retired Volleyball coach from Walla Walla Community College, introduced us to a great conditioning and hand-eye coordination game of Down and Out. He played quarterback and threw short and long passes to our players as they ran football pattern all over the gym. They loved that game and often pleading with us to not stop …  never realizing just how much running they were actually doing … how they were improving their hand-eye coordination and body control. Pool conditioning, ping-pong, cycling, and bowling all add fun and still provide carryover skills for any sport.  Be creative and bring in playground games like duck-duck-goose or dodge ball – careful on this one, it can get vicious!

Make sure you have a fitness and skill plan that tapers during the year. You should not be going as hard in the middle or end of your season as you were at the beginning of the season – this includes weight training and jump training. Have someone taking stats at practice and games so you know how many volleyball jumps and swings or how many baseball or softball pitches and throws your players have doing each day – keep a spread sheet show you can see the trends. The annual plan should include a variety of drills that fatigue different muscle groups and allow for adequate recovery time.  You can train effectively without causing overuse injuries. If you see that more than one player is suffering from the same injury, then make adjustments to your practices, warm-ups, stretching, pre-game, and/or post-game routines. Get to the root of the problem.

Final tip: Teach your athletes how to balance their lives and how to take care of their bodies.