The Mental and Physical Impacts of Injuries as a High School Athlete
To an athlete, a serious injury is the worst nightmare. The mental and physical challenges can be overwhelming, even for those with the strongest mindsets. Professional teams and even individual athletes spend large sums of money and have entire teams of professionals solely dedicated to preventing further injuries and hastening recovery. Since high school athletes don’t have access to this same array of resources, there exists a concern that they are particularly susceptible to the mental and physical consequences of serious injuries.
The physical impact of injuries in high school athletes are further complicated by the fact that they are also growing. Since expanding bones typically protrude from other tissues, they can make athletes more susceptible to muscle, tendon, and growth plate injuries. The importance of having all injuries addressed by a physician is particularly high in high school, given that these injuries can lead to permanent consequences.
Competitive sport culture also encourages athletes to play through adversity or pain, which puts them in danger of not getting the medical attention that they need. That same culture can sometimes motivate the injured athlete to return to play before they are fully healed. Leadership from coaches and administrators that puts focus on the well-being of the athlete is necessary to ensure that health is of the utmost importance.
Just as devastating as the physical consequences can be the psychological impact of a serious injury in high school. Typically emotional responses can include sadness, anger, frustration, and lack of motivation. The Olympic skier Picabo Street who battled multiple leg and knee injuries, commented on her recovery saying, “I never thought I would ever experience anything like that in my life. It was a combination of the atrophying of my legs, the new scars, and feeling like a caged animal.” While these are normal and expected emotional responses, if left unattended and unresolved for a long period of time, they can evolve into more serious mental health issues.
Seeking out help can be a challenge for student athletes, particularly given the stigma associated with mental health illnesses. Educating and creating a more accepting environment can help encourage athletes to more readily address these psychological issues. In an extreme cautionary tale, the Denver Broncos wide receiver, Kenny Mckinley, became particularly dispirited by a season-ending knee injury. Allegedly, he had talked about not knowing what he would do without football and expressed thoughts of suicide. Without the help he needed, he was tragically found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
In addition to dealing with the physical and emotional impact of injuries, it would also be beneficial to strengthen programs to prevent injuries in the first place. Most high school athletes do not have continuous access to the professional training necessary to protect against injury, so educating students at the outset of their athletic careers could be a crucial step in protecting against dire consequences. It is also critical to learn the correct playing techniques and obtain the correct protective equipment essential for staying safe.
Instituting the preventive interventions and treatment initiatives to protect high school athletes from the physical and mental effects of injury requires strong leadership and an accepting atmosphere. Such programmatic efforts certainly deserve greater attention from coaches and students alike.