After many twists and turns, in most parts of Australia we have finally been able to get an amended sports season underway. To all of the wonderful volunteers and organising bodies that made this possible, a huge thank you. As a community we can't underestimate how important it is having even a shortened season underway.
As we have completed a shortened preparation for the season, the difference in your young athlete would be obvious. We have something that resembles our regular routine, seeing the excitement in your young athlete is a great change from indifference or boredom.
In terms of young athletes getting back to sport, it is important to recognise they have been experiencing stress across a range of areas in their lives as well.
Each young athletes’ individual social situation, home environment and how they have managed the transition back to school can all impact their sport. Sport provides important social connections, which have been absent for months during lockdown.
Stress has an impact on motivation and effort - anecdotally I see this from talking with junior coaches who are seeing their young athletes are not quite the same as they were a few months back. One of my best mates has a 12 year old, a mad keen rugby union player was asked recently if he was excited to get back to rugby "yeah, sort of" was the reply - this is a young athlete who played junior reps last year.
As a parent myself with a 10 year old who loves sport, I can really relate to the change I have seen in him in the last 2 weeks.
He played AFL last weekend, and yesterday played his first game of Rugby Union. This past week has been one of his best weeks in terms of mood, engagement, and general happiness about his whole world - the reason? Simple - he was out playing and training for both sports, meeting new people, and his overall excitement for this weekend was awesome to see.
Being physically active, playing one sport he has played since he was 6, and trying a new sport, making new friends and training 3 nights this week.
On Saturday he played his first game of Rugby Union and was having a ball - right up until he fractured his wrist.
3 hours later, we left Bathurst Hospital ED with my son the proud owner of a temporary cast while he waits for the swelling to go down.
A massive thank you to everyone at Bathurst Hospital, they were just excellent in their care - an upside of playing at 10:30am Saturday is we were seen pretty quickly!
So, now my son has gone from massive excitement to being shattered - in his eyes his season is done (quite likely as it is a shortened season). If all goes well, he is in a cast for 3 weeks and still can't play for 3 weeks after that. He might get to play 1 more game this season. There will be numerous times a similar scene to this is being played out this weekend, and over the rest of this shortened season.
The challenge now is how do you support your young athlete - dwelling on the injury and staying upset that it has ruined their season is not helpful. Below are some tips to help you navigate injury if this happens to your young athlete.
Get a treatment plan sorted
With the help of your Dr/Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist - map out a treatment plan and timeline for them to Return to Play. This will give your young athlete (and you) a road map and something to aim for. Rather than simply saying you are out for 6 weeks and that's the season done, map out a plan - make sure the injury is sorted and give your young athlete something to aim for.
If there is a genuine prospect that they could play again this season, give it a crack.
A clear, written treatment plan will help reduce stress, give them clarity on the way forward and definite timelines that are being aimed at. It also means that everyone involved in the care and management of your young athlete is on the same page (everyone should have a copy of the treatment plan, and as it is revised get the updated plan). A good Sports Dr or Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist will write out a treatment plan for you as a matter of course, otherwise, insist your practitioner does this for you.
There is plenty more to talk about just on this section alone that I will expand on in my next blog post – watch this space!
Coaches and officials at clubs have a critical role to play here - in the first instance a phone call, facebook message, or text message to check in on the young athlete (and parents) is a massive non-negotiable. Don't underestimate the impact following up makes, apart from being the right thing to do, it shows a level of care, culture and class that is sadly not common.
Want to lock in a young athlete and their parents for life with your club? Follow up when they get injured - especially if it involves a trip to hospital.
The other area coaches and clubs are critical is keeping them involved with your team. Just because they are injured, doesn't mean they aren't part of the team, find a role for them (and not just running water on game day) and insist that coming to training and being part of the team is still expected.
Coaches will also need to engage the rest of the team on this, it is a great learning opportunity for everyone.
Unfortunately, at some time, most young athletes are going to be injured and miss at least a week of training and playing. More than any other season embedding a love of sport and reconnecting with physical activity are the cornerstones of this year.
Highlight the positives, use examples of elite athletes
Most young athletes harbour dreams of being a professional athlete, at least for a short time - for other young athletes it is a burning ambition. Either way, injuries are a fact of life and if your young athlete is one of the few who make it they need to learn early on how to deal with injuries. Even if your young athlete has no dream of being a professional, injuries are an opportunity to teach them a range of things about life; resilience, opportunity, resetting, perspective, and how to manage frustrations to name a few.
Alex Johnson is one great example - he first injured his knee in 2013 (after winning the AFL Grand Final with the Sydney Swans in 2012). After multiple knee reconstructions and associated surgeries, didn't play a game of football for 1736 days.
He didn't wallow in self pity, or burden his team with feeling sorry for him - Alex's attitude, energy and support for his teammates was first class. He was so impressive in this that in 2016 he was awarded Best Clubman at the Sydney Swans Club Champion presentation night. There are plenty of other examples similar to this that coaches and parents can use to help young athletes navigate their journey through injury, give them another focus, and set new goals while they are on the road to recovery.
Exploit Opportunities - Plan your week
Young athletes also need the help of parents and teachers - times of injury are an opportunity to spend more time on school and also improving skill or technique areas that need development.
I have seen numerous examples of young athletes I have treated with significant injuries that had big improvements in their grades at school. Talk with your teacher(s) and get help mapping out a study plan.
Your coach is also an important check point in identifying areas of improvement - injured your ankle? You can still work on your pass, your shot, catching etc. Take a coaching or officiating course, this will improve your game knowledge and improve your toolbox as an athlete when you return to play.
The key thing here is there are plenty of opportunities that can be exploited during injury, with some thought, planning and working together some great outcomes can be achieved;
Why is this so important? - well several reasons actually;
It is important for young people to play sport and stay active for their physical and mental health and wellbeing, and to develop their physical literacy. An early connection to sport can also encourage a lifelong love of sport and physical activity.
Dig a little deeper into this and there are 3 sub groups most at risk of dropping out of junior sport - if you are ;
Junior sport isn't just about winning, its also about building happier, healthier and safer communities. Social bonds are generally stronger in communities where sport is a key part of everyone's lives and physical activity is a priority.
It also gets you out of your "bubble" - which has shrunk considerably through this period. Interacting with team mates and friends you may not have seen much since March will make a big difference for all of the reasons listed above.
Junior sport is not just about the physical side of things. Sport helps young athletes develop new skills to deal with the ups and downs of life in general. With the help of good coaching, sport will help young athletes learn how to work with team mates to perform better as a group and hopefully win on occasions as well.
Young athletes will get a sense of accomplishment from this and from learning to work well with team mates, can use this in the classroom and life in general as they become adults. In any team there are young athletes that stand out or want to be leaders - good support from parents and coaches can help develop these qualities. Over time these young athletes become great role models for their peers and can help resolve conflicts or problems as they arise, not just at sport, but at school and as they grow up.
No matter what, getting back to junior sport is critical for young athletes, and the communities that they live in.