Injury. A real pain in the wherever for athletes, and something we like to minimize at Purple Patch. Proudly, we do a pretty good job when it comes to injuries that stem from overuse or lack of recovery. Relative to many coaches, we have a darn low rate of soft tissue issues, but what about the unfortunate and unforeseen impact injuries? We started this year with a collection of the most random cluster of impact injuries I have ever experienced as a coach. Sam Appleton - broken clavicle. Ed Baker - broken clavicle and ribs. Laura Siddall - broken clavicle. Ken Pagluighi - laceration and a broken clavicle. The list goes on, with each event unfortunate, random, and bizarre.
It happens, and triathlon is not a risk-free sport, but I have never experienced so many in such a short time. The experience of helping these athletes navigate through these injuries has highlighted an interesting component of coaching that is worth sharing and important for you to absorb — just in case (and I hope it doesn’t!) this occurs to you.
Sustaining an impact injury is not typically the time to turn your back on coaching — that is when the coaching starts.
This week, we chatted as a coaching team about the critical role we, as coaches, play in the rehab process. Many athletes and coaches fall into the trap of thinking of an “out of action” athlete as not requiring as much attention. I suggested to the team that an injured athlete will likely more than double the time, energy, support, and communication of a normal flourishing coaching relationship. When injured, the coaching gets very real.
Here is the general process that occurs with a significant impact injury:
- Heal and recover emotionally: This can be a week or two, but generally isn’t as long as most athletes will feel upset immediately post-injury. The athlete requires time and space to allow some emotional and physical healing to occur.
- Moving the body — getting active: Notice that I don’t label this training, but it is critical. As soon as we can, the mission is to get planning for a return to full action, but also begin to move the body in activities that don’t delay recovery time. This is often components like initial spinning, light elliptical, or walking on the treadmill. The key is that activity is not framed as training but just to promote healing and sanity. Proper coaching will appropriately set up highly tailored sessions that fit with current physical state and allow progression without negative impact
- Train within context: Once the body has truly begun turning a corner and is less restricted, the athlete enters the tough emotional and physical part — training within the context of injuries. It is impossible to return to full training, and patience will need to be at a premium as consistent doses of training must be tinkered and evolved based on how the body reacts to each step. It is next to impossible for an athlete to self-manage here, and many who try will delay recovery or experience other injuries through poor judgment.
- The return to full training: Finally, the athlete can ease into full and uninterrupted training but must remember that progression must begin from where they are at in the “now", not from where they want to be or were when the injury occurred. Again, only an engaged and objective coach can truly guide this process.
- Here comes competition: The last step of the journey is planning and engaging in racing once again. Great coaching will help the athlete make best time-of-return decisions, will frame expectations, will strategize for best outcomes and set the path for the athlete to return to their ambitious performance journey.
As you can see, beyond the initial few days, every single phase of an athlete’s return will be imprinted by the heavy hand of effective coaching. It isn’t simple, it demands collaboration, feedback, and strength of leadership, but engaging in the process by coach and athlete is sure to minimize the negative impact of an unfortunate impact injury in the broader picture of the performance puzzle. Just look at Sam Appleton this weekend. At the end of the first week of April, he lay on the stretcher wondering if his season was over, but by the end of June, he is guns blazing with a great 2nd place return to racing among a world-class field and well on his way to a grand second half of the season. It isn’t random, it is anchored in the coach-athlete relationship.