When your heart hurts or your head’s in the wrong place, though, symptoms might not be quite so obvious.
That’s when athletic trainers go to work, but not in the traditional sense. There’s no taping or splinting or icing involved. No whirlpool, hydrocollator pads or Game Ready. Not literally anyway.
“The one thing I’ve seen more and more from all sports – and I just saw something recently out of the triathlon world – is that there’re high-level athletes talking about their struggles as they cope with injuries or things in their personal lives,” said Jason Engle, who serves as an athletic trainer at Collegiate.
“As sports medicine professionals, that’s where we can have a big influence. We have this special connection with our athletes. We’re on the front line of picking up on underlying psychological concerns. It’s not for us to diagnose but to refer them to the appropriate people.”
Engle makes clear that these aren’t everyday occurrences. That said, when situations arise, he and head athletic trainer Shannon Winston, both experienced practitioners, use their depth of knowledge and well-honed instincts to mitigate the effects of stress and respond pro-actively in the best interests of athletes. One day recently, he shared his thoughts and insights.
Speak to the importance of athletic trainers having their antennae up.
When you have consistency with coaching and athletic trainers, you get to know your athletes and their parents well, and parents feel comfortable talking to us so we can make referrals if necessary. We look outside the athletic stresses – or perceived stresses – that kids are under. There’s sometimes self-imposed pressure to succeed with the academics and everything else they’re involved in at school. They have a lot to manage. It’s figuring out an individual plan. We sometimes see psychological stresses manifesting physically. Are they having difficulty breathing or are they having panic and anxiety-type symptoms before or during a match? It’s getting to know that kid and knowing what it takes to settle them or reset their mind.
How do you do that?
It comes back to the individual. Some kids tell me, I just need you to be there while I calm myself down. Other kids ask for help focusing on their breathing, so I’ll give them a cue like a three-second inhale and five-second exhale. You never know the triggers. It could be a practice or game or state championship competition or a situation they’ve been in 100 times, but something happened in school that day that makes it feel different. The big thing seems to be just talking about it.
So you have the athletes’ backs?
Yes, we try to be that shoulder they can lean on. We have kids that come into the training room, and you can just tell that something’s off. They’re maybe lingering a little longer or don’t seem as interactive with us or with other students. Sometimes, it’s outside stresses. Sometimes, the stress or anxiety is self-imposed. They don’t want to let themselves or somebody else down. It has to do more with personality types. You have those Type A personalities that want to be the best at everything. At some point, they spread themselves too thin and might not have the coping skills to manage all those different stresses.
You’ve also helped kids stay focused during long recoveries from injuries.
When you’re talking post-surgical, months and months of rehab, a kid will go through different stages of grief. Working with those kids every single day for six months, you really get to know them well. You know when to push and when to pull back. In the scheme of things missing one day is sometimes better than pushing through. It’s all about connections.
It helps to be a calm, non-judgmental, intentional listener. That way, you develop trust.
It’s athletes getting their feelings out. It’s getting rid of the stigma that you’re weak or not tough enough. You have to be upfront with yourself and with your support circle. It’s almost like another part of training. You learn coping skills. You can learn how to manage your life better.