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5 Issues Athletes Struggle With When Benched Due To Injury: #2 The Ability To Overcome Obstacles

Issue #2: The Ability to Overcome

Enrolling your kids in sports has so many benefits, but one of the big ones is giving them a place to encounter challenges and overcome them. Sports provide a great sense of accomplishment for many kids, its where they achieve goals, improve skills, challenge opponents. This develops a strong sense of self-efficacy. (Which is a term you probably haven't heard since you were in high school yourself.) Self-efficacy is a belief in your ability to achieve goals. Sports provide an endless supply of situations where an athlete can build this trait. They improve their race time, learn new ball handling skills, learn a new on field play, take on a difficult opponent.

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When they are sidelined, their daily lives no longer include (as many) opportunities to overcome obstacles, especially physical ones. They still overcome obstacles in the classroom, but for athletically minded children, often these obstacles don’t offer as much reward. Overcoming athletic obstacles brings a sense of pride and accomplishment that your athlete likely doesn't get anywhere else. When there are fewer opportunities to prove to themselves, and others, that they are capable of taking on a task and mastering it, they will have fewer positive-reward interactions in a day. Fewer positive-reward actions leads to less of the brain chemicals that bring happiness and joy, this can lead to lowered self-esteem and just an overall lowering of mood.

Your athlete is used to meeting an obstacle, training, and then overcoming it within a matter of a few hours, days, weeks. When recovering from this injury lasts longer than that, it is a new experience. You athlete hasn’t worked at an obstacle this long before.  That can make this injury feel like it has stopped them altogether. While this experience is a good thing, and will teach your child perseverance, it's important to understand how stuck it makes them feel. Because they can’t overcome this injury as quickly, they may feel like they’ve lost the ability to overcome at all.  This can lead to hopelessness, depression, and a whole world of negative self talk rattling around in their brains.


Strategies We Suggest:

Just like with issue #1, you want to make sure you get on your athlete’s level. Listen to them, validate their feelings, and then wait for them to settle down before you redirect. When your child is very upset, they aren’t able to think logically. Taking them through a logical plan while they are actively yelling, crying, or clenching, isn’t going to be effective and will leave you both feeling more frustrated. This may mean hugging it out and then giving them space for a few hours before coming to the redirection conversation. You know your child best, wait until they are in a good head-space before taking on the conversation.  

When you think your child is ready, come up with a strategy together for how to get back in the game. This may mean watching previous game tapes and looking for ways to improve. You can both watch their team’s games and then talk about the games afterward. Ask them what they saw that was good and what could be improved on. Talk to your athlete about what they would do differently. Make them think hard about what they contribute and how they want to contribute when they get back onto the court, field, etc. This takes your child through the obstacle-tackling process in their brain. This not only helps them get positive-reward brain chemicals, but also helps them remember that they still know how to overcome obstacles. Working with your athlete to help them feel like they have a plan will also help them return to play with a different mindset, a confident mindset that’s targeted on their goals.

Another option is to watch televised versions of the sport or, if the sport is not televised, you can find YouTube videos. You can point out times the players take on a task and overcome and remind your athlete that they’ve done that too. “That slide tackle reminds me of the game where you…” or “remember when you first learned how to do that skill?” or “that team’s comeback is just like when your team was down by 10...” Reminisce of the good times where your athlete showed an amazing ability to overcome and impressed you.

If you watch a specific professional team and one of their athletes has been injured, maybe with something similar your athlete is going through, find the story for them and share it with them. If the athlete is playing again, watch those games and talk about how that person is doing now. Remind them that playing after injury is possible. Once you show your athlete the story, they will likely continue to dig into that story over the internet and find something really inspirational to get them through. Professional athletes can be really good at being inspiring but make sure you do a little research first. Sharing the story of Carson Wentz would be a much better choice than sharing the story of Michael Vick. Kids know the internet and know how to dig, you want to make sure the person they are digging into is someone you can get behind. You also have amazing, inspiring stories like the recent one from the Steelers. If Ryan Shazier can walk back onto the field at Paul Brown stadium, your kid can make it through this.


Many strategies, especially conversational strategies, are based off the information provided in the book The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. This book offers strategies for parents and clinicians to help children deal with trauma, loss, and grief while taking their brain development into account. This book is a fantastic read and helps the reader understand the behaviors of children based on where they are in brain development. We highly recommend this book to parents, coaches, and anyone who works with children.

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