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The facts, effects and futures of athlete injuries

By Hillary Hurst and Miqueas Barreiro

How common are athlete injuries?

According to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between the 2009-2010 and 2013-2014 school years there was an average estimated 76,176 injuries among the top 25 NCAA sports.  In total, 1,053,370 injuries occurred over that five-year period. These injuries were all self-reported by the athletes and trainers. 

Among men’s sports, football had the highest number of injuries (47,199) and among women’s sports, soccer scored the highest (15,113). The study also examines the relationship between number of injuries and the number of athletes that participate in the sport, as well as the number of “athlete-exposures,” or times that an athlete could be injured. 

For example, since men’s football has more practices, games and participants than men’s soccer, there are an estimated 5,154,055 athlete-exposures in football compared to the 1,684,854 athlete-exposures in men’s soccer. 

So what do all these numbers and statistic-talk mean for the average student-athlete? Well, the first lesson is picking swimming or diving just because it has an injury rate of between 1.7 and 1.8 per 1,000 athlete-exposures doesn’t mean you won’t get hurt. It just means that you aren’t as likely to be injured as, say, a football player, who has a 9.5 in 1,000 chance. 

Also, while this study does look at the difference between injuries requiring less than seven days to recover and injuries lasting seven or more days before recovery, it does not look at the number of repeat injuries or career-ending injuries. Most physical therapists will tell you that once you injure a part of your body, reinjury or increased injury is far more likely. Also, we can all agree that a career-ending injuries, while it does eliminate your exposure to other injuries, are much worse than a simple sprain causing you to sit out for a week. 

In the end, it’s simple. The more you train, the more strain you put on your body and the more likely you will injure yourself. Student athletes, along with anyone who participates in physical activity, should pay closes attention to their bodies as they train and exercise. Reporting serious discomfort or unusual pain to their trainer or doctor can go a long way to preventing a serious injury in the future. Spending time stretching or doing physical therapy-type workouts to build and stabilize muscles can also help. 

However, the most important lesson to remember is injuries are common and can happen to anyone. Participating in a sport, especially at a high level, is a gift, and every aspect of it should be enjoyed, because no one ever knows when it can be taken away.

The effects of being an injured athlete

Being injured as an athlete has incredible implications for that person, as he or she may face serious depression in the absence of their sport. As unfortunate as it is, injuries are part of sports, and all athletes recognize that from a young age. A sprained ankle here or there, a couple of jammed fingers are no big deal, but if an athlete sustains a serious or career-ending injury, he or she can have an intense psychological reaction, triggering many mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance abuse. 

According to the NCAA, normal emotional responses to injuries include sadness, isolation, irritation, lack of motivation, anger, frustration, changes in appetite, sleep disturbance and disengagement. The way each athlete responds is different, making it impossible to determine how emotionally affected they will be to the injury. 

For many athletes, post-injury depression is caused by a perceived performance failure, feelings like they have let the team down or a decrease in their quality of life. Remember, especially as the level increases, many athletes have played their sport their entire life. Such a drastic change in daily activities caused by injuries can cause a sort of identity crisis in many athletes. In extreme cases, suicide can result. 

Therefore, it is very important that coaches, athletic trainers, and weight trainers are aware and attentive to not only the physical recovery and health of an injured athlete, but the mental health as well. 

How to cope 

Sustaining a sports injury or even a career-ending sports injury can clearly be devastating. With this awareness, it is important to provide athletes with tips on how to achieve happiness after sports. 

One way athletes can do this is by taking the skills they have learned as an athlete, hard work, determination and commitment, and challenging themselves in a completely new arena. This new arena could be a job at a corporation, starting a non-profit organization or becoming a coach. Whatever the athlete chooses, it is helpful for he or she to accept a brand new challenge and apply the same lessons they’ve learned their entire life to be able to succeed.

Another way to cope is for the athlete to take time to discover what their passions maybe are outside of sports. After playing sports for a lifetime, this answer will likely take some serious searching. If the athlete can find an outside passion, they will have an outlet for the same commitment and dedication they poured into their sports. 

Whatever the reason, injury, illness or simply a career coming to an end, life after sports can be challenging for many. If you fall into this category, know you are not alone and take time to rediscover what makes you feel alive.

See also:

‘The game would never look the same’: student athletes coping with an injury