Think back to a few player injuries in your program. If your experience is anything like mine or the many coaches we support, then you might relate to the following:
One of your key players takes a bad fall during the game. Oh, no! Is this serious? You and the trainer walk onto the field.
Based on the level of pain the player is experiencing, you make a quick judgment: It’s serious enough that this player won’t be going back into this game.
A couple of players hustle over to help the injured player off the field. People clap, but your mind quickly shifts to: How are we going to win this game without one of our best players?
Win or lose; after the game, you check on the player. You want to make sure they are all right—which is really an inquiry into how long they are going to be out. The trainer gives you the bad news: a minimum of three weeks.
You express your disappointment and concern for the player, letting them know you’re sorry they are injured, and you tell them, “Don’t worry, you’ll be back!”
You care about this player, and you feel for them. But you can’t help it; as you walk out of the training room, your mind shifts to: How are we going to survive the next few weeks without this player? Instead of dwelling on how unfair this situation is, you take on the “next man up” mentality.
Over the next few weeks, you will check the progress of this player’s recovery, and you might assign them a few tasks or give them some ways to stay active and help out. But for the most part, their focus will be on “getting healthy”. If someone were to walk into your practice, they might see the injured player doing a little rehab or some stretches, but they wouldn’t find them fully engaged in the practice, either learning or leading others.
Here’s what I am getting at: Neither the player, nor the coach, nor the parents see injuries as a positive or an opportunity for the player to grow. Everyone is just trying to get through it; few try to grow through it. But what if we became more intentional in how we support players during this period?
Take 15 seconds to watch this video of NFL New Orleans Saints QB Drew Brees on the sideline of a game in which he was injured. As he watched the second-string QB from afar, he visualized the reps with such intensity that he imagined he was in the huddle, calling the play himself.
It’s been proven by extensive research that visualizing reps can be almost as effective as doing reps. This isn’t just for patterned plays or decision-making; it can also help you improve your muscular strength. It has been shown through multiple studies that one can improve their strength by purely visualizing the physical reps of lifting.
So, when we are injured, not only can we improve our tactical and technical skills, but we can also improve our athleticism. Not only can we do this by “paying attention”, as we often encourage our athletes to do, but we can also do it by using visualization to imagine we are an active participant.
Visualization isn’t the only way to learn and grow. Being sidelined with an injury creates opportunities for players to grow as leaders and adopt a more selfless mindset. We can look for new opportunities to put them into positions where they get to help coach the team. Quite possibly the most glaring opportunity is for them to realize they can help the team even if they are not on the court. But it takes a selfless mindset to realize this—one which we can develop during this injured period.
Three Ways to Support Injured Players and Keep Them Engaged
- Player Improvement Plan (How can you improve as a player during this time?): Make time for a one-on-one with the player to create a plan to maximize their time to grow. Specific commitments should be made by the coach and the player to set expectations and ensure success. Consider sharing this with parents and teammates.
- Clarify Role (In what ways can you help the players and the coaches during this time?): When it comes to planning practice sessions or preparing for a game, try to avoid giving them grunt work. Instead, give them real clarity on their role and the ways it can be valuable by allowing them to coach a team in practice or asking for their input during practices or games.
- Connect with the Player (What do you need from me so that you can be successful during this time?): You need to get clarity on how you can support each player specifically during their injured period. You want the player to remain connected to the program during this time.
Not only do you want the player to learn and grow during this time, but as a transformational coach, you also have a very important opportunity to communicate through your actions that a player’s value is not determined by what they can do for you on the field or the court. You want them to feel valued and cared for because they are a member of your team.