the psychological and physical risks of playing through an injury

In my blog I will talk about the pressures of playing through injury and illness in professional sport and the mental and psychological effect on the athletes` ability to perform.

It is a reality that most athletes will experience an injury (or illness) at some point in their career. Depending on the type of injury, severity, and the time at which it (injury) occurs in the athletes career, the individual`s mindset and emotional health has the potential to be impacted negatively, resulting mental health issues Nixon HL, ll (1996).   There are many factors that can contribute to the deterioration of the mental health of the athlete, one being, psychological pressure placed upon the athlete to compete and excel regardless of their illness or injury (Kyle et al., 2006).  These expectations are often unrealistic and may result in harsh criticism for those injured athletes who are not able to fight through the pain of the injury and continue to play, or be willing to risk further injury to themselves.

Culturally, there is a belief in sport that if you are physically able to play, you must and that anything less is not acceptable.  The reaction to an athlete that overcomes an injury or illness to have a positive result on the game has gone from being one of adulation to now being that of expectation (Greenleaf et al., 2001).. This change in expectation places a whole new type of pressure on the modern day athlete that has never existed in the past.

In the 1990`s, when televised sports were really becoming increasingly accessible and popular in society, the community perception was that of pure amazement while watching the likes of Michel Jordan scoring 38 points while suffering with the flu in a vital playoff game, ignoring the risk of damaging his heart.  At that point in time, playing while ill or injured was not normal accepted behaviour. However, with the creation of social media and its use in the sporting arena, there is a new and unfounded criticism of those who are either not able to replicate the feats of those from the past, or those who are not willing to further damage their bodies in the pursuit of those accomplishments.

The added pressure that athletes now have with the constant criticisms coming from social media compounded with already existing stresses that comes with carrying an injury may start to have hugely negative effects on both the athletes` mental health and also their performance in their given field (Kyle et al., 2006). The anxiety that can be associated with playing with an injury can also be compounded with the stresses that come from constant criticism by the media.  After a bad performance by an athlete with a known injury, media will often question the athlete on the injury and their ability to perform. This has the potential to increase the level of anxiety over the injury, decreasing arousal, resulting in poorer performances O`Connell (2012). Further, if the injury is ongoing, prolonged anxiety and stress to perform over a long period can affect the immune system, leading to other illnesses.

It is not hard to find examples of the anxiety and stress athletes face when deciding whether or not to play with an injury and the resulting effects being easily viewable. Examples are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. List of injured players, their decisions to play and the out comes

Player Injury Play/sit out Effectiveness Criticism/adulation
Rajon Rondo Dislocated elbow Played Played well/team lost Rondo received little adulation and received limited criticism
Dwight Howard Herniated disk in back/ torn labarum Sat out Team was losing Received harsh criticism for choosing not to play through pain
Dwight Howard Played Under preformed for him (still well)/ team was losing Criticism for not dominating position
Derrick Rose Torn acl Sat out Team was winning but needed him in finals Much debate if should return at under 100%  heavy criticism form fan base
Tony Parker Strained hamstring Played limited minuets Team performed well but lost Criticised for lack of value/reduce by other circumstances
Kerri Strug Sprained ankle Competed Won Adulation
Patrice Bergeron Separated shoulder, broken ribs, torn cartilage and muscles Competed Lost Adulation/ injuries because life threatening
Michael Jordan Flu Competed Won Adulation
Stephen Curry Ankle injury Competed Team remained competitive Neither/further damaged ankle

Taking two of the examples from the table above the risks to the athlete, physically and psychologically, can be examined easily.

During the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, Bruins centre Patrice Bergeron played the final game of the series having suffered a broken rib, torn cartilage in his ribs and separated shoulder the game before.  For Bergeron to enter the final game with these injuries, suggests substantial pressure, both internal and external, not to let his team down. The result was Bergeron was praised for his actions; however Bergeron suffered a punctured lung during the game, a potential life threatening condition Mcdonald (2013).

However, not every athlete will choose to take that route.  During the 2012-13 NBA season the Los Angeles Lakers centre Dwight Howard decided to sit out the start of the season.  Howard was suffering with a surgically repaired back and torn labrum.  He had the ability to play but would have been in extreme pain.  As a result of his decision, he was ridiculed by the media, past greats of the game and his then team mates until he gave into the pressures of playing.  Upon his return he was still the best centre in the league but as his team was losing, criticism continued.  After the season most journalists admitted they were probably too hard on him but justified it with “comes with the territory of playing under pressure for such a storied franchise like the Los Angeles Lakers” Vitti (2013).

The added pressure and stress that is being placed on athletes to play while injured could be having a huge detrimental effect on these athletes` health and wellbeing, both physically and mentally.  In the next part of my blog I may discuss potential strategies for the athlete to overcome these anxieties and stresses.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s