Coaching strategies for helping the injured athlete cope

The fifth and final installment in Dr. Alan Goldberg’s series on helping athletes through injuries. This segment deals with what coaches can do.

  • #1 BE EMPATHETIC– Let your athletes know that YOU understand what THEY are feeling and having to go through. Understand where their anger, frustration and disappointment comes from and allow them time to mourn. Do NOT expect them to just “suck it up”, “shake it off and “be strong!” Instead, let them have their feelings without indulging them in self-pity. One of the more powerful things that you can do as a coach is to care enough about your player so that you take the time to really understand what they are feeling and going through. Your genuine empathy and caring will go a long way towards strengthening the coach-athlete relationship and aiding the healing process.
  • #2 WORK WITH THEIR SELF-ESTEEM – Understand that the injured athlete has just suffered a major blow to his feelings of self-worth and is therefore feeling quite vulnerable. Let him know in BOTH your actions and words that you still value him as a person, NOT just as an athlete. Do NOT avoid or act disinterested in that individual. Remember, it is YOUR responsibility to reach out to him, not vice versa. You are the “qualified adult and professional. You must act like one. Far too many coaches completely ignore the injured athlete, which ends up truly destroying his already shaky self-esteem. Reach out and help that athlete feel important and valuable.
  • #3 GIVE THEM A ROLE ON THE TEAM– Help the injured athlete fight the their feelings of worthlessness and identity confusion by giving them another role on the team. Assign them a job as “assistant coach” or consultant into team functioning. Seek out their opinion and “advice” during practices or competitions. In fact, your injured athlete may have some valuable insight into the inner workings of the team. Actively utilize his “expertise” in this area. Make him feel important and that he still has a vital role to play on the squad.
  • #4 DON’T ALLOW THE ATHLETE TO ISOLATE HIMSELF FROM THE TEAM – Insist that the athlete continue to function as an important member/part of the team. Assign other athletes on the squad to monitor the injured athlete’s involvement and to intervene whenever that athlete begins to withdraw and/or isolate him/herself. As mentioned previously, take it upon yourself as the coach to actively reach out to this individual. The coach can have a powerfully positive impact on the injured athlete’s feelings of inclusion. Be there for him and do not allow him to withdraw.
  • #5 LET YOUR ATHLETE KNOW THAT YOU CARE – Increase contact and communication with the injured athlete. Call him if he is unable to show up at practice. If he is recovering from surgery, visit him in the hospital. A little of your time at this point in the recovery process will dramatically help ease the emotional and psychological pain that the athlete is experiencing.
  • #6 WHEN APPROPRIATE, EXPECT THE ATHLETE TO “PRACTICE” – Whether it’s limited physical or purely mental, let the injured athlete know that you expect her to continue her training, however modified. When possible, assign her a special workout that fits the limitation of her injury. Take an interest in her “training” and regularly check on how it’s going.
  • #7 HELP THE ATHLETE GET IN TOUCH WITH OTHER AREAS OF PERSONAL STRENGTH – Help the injured athlete understand that excelling in her sport demands a tremendous amount of success and life skills that she has already developed and that she can learn to transfer to other areas in her life. Clearly spell out for her what these areas are and help her begin to see their application in other arenas.
  • #8 IF THE ATHLETE’S DEPRESSION DOES NOT LIFT OR IF THERE ARE WARNING SIGNS IMMEDIATELY REFER HIM/HER TO A PROFESSIONAL– If the athlete is seriously depressed (has lost interest in activities, shows changes in eating and sleeping habits, or is having suicidal thoughts or feelings), it is critically important that you refer him/her for professional counseling. If you are particularly concerned about your athlete, you may need to play a forceful, advocate role where you enlist the parents’ aid in helping their son or daughter get the professional help that is needed. The eating/sleeping warning signs of depression must be taken very seriously.


Athletic injury, whether temporary or permanent, is and always will be a painfully disruptive and uncontrollable interruption in an athlete’s life. If you follow some of the guidelines put forth in this article you can speed up the rehab process and lessen the psychological and emotional pain that normally accompanies most athletic injuries. Keep in mind though that the rehab process is more often times than not very slow and painful.

Understand also that when you as an athlete first get back out there on the field or court you will naturally be preoccupied with worries about hurting yourself again. Don’t be alarmed by this. Fear of re-injury is absolutely normal. It’s also pretty common for the recently recovered athlete to find herself mentally replaying the injury over and over again in her mind’s eye. This tendency to focus on “what you are afraid will happen” will distract you from the task at hand and leave you performing physically tight. In this condition, you’re actually far more vulnerable to re-injury! To counteract this natural tendency, discipline yourself to concentrate on what you WANT to have happen, NOT what you’re afraid will. Focus on what you need to do in order to execute perfectly. While this may be far easier said then done in the beginning, discipline yourself to maintain a positive focus on your performance.

Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally-known expert in the field of applied sport psychology, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. He is the author of 25 mental toughness training programs and Director of Competitive Advantage. His website is

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