Every year in Canada there are over 63,000 sports-related head injuries in high school sports alone. Across all of Canadian organized sport, the figure rises to 1.6 million, with some estimates as high as 3.8 million. A great deal of these injuries could be prevented.
High school and college athletes in particular face pressure that forces them back into their games sooner than is medically recommended. This pressure is often the result of coaches who push their star athletes to compete when they shouldn’t.
At a minor league hockey forum hosted by the Toronto Star last week, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke illustrated a mind set that prevails in much of organized sport: “You play a contact sport, there’s going to be injuries. It’s that simple.”
From an early age, athletes are taught to toughen up, and “play-through-the-pain” becomes a mantra. The image of the resilient athlete is one of the things that leads to the all-too-common phenomenon of playing while injured.
When asked about deciding to allow an injured player back in the game, McGill Redmen basketball coach Craig Norman relied on concepts of toughness. “Some kids have higher thresholds for pain than others, and sometimes that determines it,” he said.
Star player Matt Thornhill spent most of January wearing a face mask because of a broken nose. “I couldn’t miss games just because of a broken nose – it was something I just had to play through.”
Canadian Interuniversity Sport, the league in which McGill teams play, has no official policy on playing while injured. The choice of whether or not an athlete is healthy enough to play falls to the school. Here at McGill, this decision rests with coaches, players, and is heavily influenced by the medical staff. McGill’s policy dictates that varsity players receive a full physical at the beginning of each season, as well as periodic check ups. At the first sign of injury, players report to the team physician in the case of a varsity team, or the sports clinic for club teams.
Part of being a college varsity coach is preparing athletes for potential futures at more elite levels of sport. This preoccupation often results in players seeing game time sooner than they should.
Key players like Thornhill can end up facing the difficult choice of playing while injured or losing their spot on the roster. When asked if he faces more pressure to play while injured because of his skill level, Thornhill affirmed that he did. “When you get hurt, you want to come back and play, so the pressure is kind of mutual,” he said.
While this pressure can come from parents, fans, and the players themselves, the main source is often coaches. Norman explained: “If the kid is of major importance to your success, then you work with the medicine people and are a bit more aggressive in your rehab, and they come back a little earlier than someone else.”
This attitude is often pushed to dangerous extremes in college sports. The expectation of injuries should not excuse coaches from playing athletes in a way that will risk their health in the long term. Those who are meant to protect players should, and should stop looking to push players for “their own good.” Encouraging students to stay active and live healthy lives is important, but when the encouragement becomes coercion, we need to draw a line.