If you have every been injured or witnessed a sport injury, you can remember the exact moment it happened.
Maybe the look, the sound, the pain, or the fear. Maybe it’s something else.
Injuries can be really traumatic and, sometimes, disgusting. Unfortunately, injury rates in sports are not all that promising, so it is likely that you or someone you know has or will go through a sports-related injury of some kind.
No matter the type or severity of an injury, there are two key decisions and actions that, in my experience in working with athletes to return from injury to play (RTP), can make a massive difference in the speed and outcome of the treatment and RTP process.
It (re)starts in your head.
In the first moments following the injury, your first thoughts are probably something along the lines of:
“How bad is it?”
“Can I train still?”
“Will I need a break/operation?”
“What about ______?”
The first thought is, 99% of the time, worry.
Hey, that’s normal. You’ve just experienced an injury.
However, as soon as possible, it’s time to start shifting your mindset from this focus on the concerns, negatives, and details to readjusting your goal.
If you are injured, your goal changes from “score the goals/win the games” to “heal as quickly and thoroughly as possible and return to play”.
Especially if you have a goal within this season, there is no time to waste.
Everything in life, even breathing and bloodflow and movement, start in your brain. The quicker you change your mindset to focus on your healing process as a primary task, with the goal of RTP better and stronger than before, the more efficient and positive you can be throughout the process.
An additional consideration: don’t separate yourself from your team. You can still attend practice or games and find some way to help or be involved. You need their social support to help you through, and, even though you’re injured, you’re still a part of the team. Don’t run away from that.
Don’t burn time on the therapy table.
Depending on the type and severity of your injury, you should get a thorough diagnosis and individualised treatment plan. More times than not, this includes “rest” and 2-6 insurance-funded visits with “the physical therapist”.
PTs are great people with very important jobs. I, too, come from the physio and rehab world, and I respect how difficult but vital their role in the RTP process can be.
However, it is worth noting that not all PTs are created equal. Some deal with RTP every day and are experts, and some might get athletes once a month. Some may be sports physios, and some just typical, fresh-out-of-school generalists.
You want a PT in your treatment protocol who is an expert in your situation and equally as interested in getting you back to sport as you are. Just as you would with your doctor, ask as many questions as possible, make sure you feel comfortable, and do research for yourself.
Find a strength coach to help you bridge the gap between the therapy table and the sport context.
One extremely ignorant error that we tend to make very often is going from 6 weeks of slow-paced, general physical therapy work directly back to sports training.
This is irresponsible.
It should be noted that there are often reasons within the athlete why an injury occurred (or why the athlete was more prone to severity). Even after PT treatment is done, a qualified and competent strength coach (I recommend anyone with an NSCA-CSCS certification and some level of rehab/prehab experience) should assess the athlete and continue the RTP protocol, re-preparing and supporting the athlete to meet the demands of sport again before playing.
Return To Play Protocols begin when athletes decide that their goal is now to heal up and return to sport, and does not end on the therapy table.
It ends after the sport-specific preparation with the strength coach and when the athlete is physical and mentally ready to step back into the game again.
Every injury protocol should be specific to the athlete in duration, intensity, and need. However, the goal of RTP is that the athlete is stronger, healthier, and more robust than before the injury every happened, and as quickly as possible.