Persisting football injuries are the scourge of the dressing room. Whilst everyone accepts that injury is ‘part of the game’ and part of sport, this does not necessarily make it any easier for the player, whatever the level, or the treating clinicians. A range of pressures and expectations exist, which impact upon the experience and the outcome. Managing these in the best way is one of the key components of a successful approach. Kieron Dyer, in his new book, describes the suffering he endured as a result of his recurring injuries and pain, which certainly had an impact upon the longevity of his career.
“Even though I knew I was injured, there was a lot going through my mind when I was celebrating with the fans…..I couldn’t cope with a career that had become a continuous cycle of hope and despair. If there were an end in sight to it, it would be different, but no one could seem to cure the problem” ~ Kieron Dyer
Addressing an acute injury is a well known and understood process: diagnose the problem, administer the right messages and treatment, start rehabilitation as soon as possible, build fitness and sport specific training with a gradual return to play. So why is it that some plays become besieged by persistent and recurring injuries and pain?
The broad brush answer is the same for any person experiencing chronic pain and injury. There are a number of vulnerabilities and contextual factors at play, meaning that protective measures rightly kick in, but do not necessarily ‘reset’ to an appropriate level of vigilance. As a consequence, this loss of differentiation means that more and more moments are perceived as potentially threatening. It only needs to be a possible threat for a protect state to be initiated, with the perception of pain being part of this state.
The first step of understanding, especially for the player, is that pain and injury are neither the same, nor well related. We have known this for many years:
“The period after injury is divided into the immediate, acute and chronic stages. In each stage it is shown that pain has only a weak connection to injury but a strong connection to the body state.”
~ Wall (1979) Co-founder of Textbook of Pain
To fully describe the complexities of an emergent chronic problem is beyond the scope of this blog — we cover many of the important dimensions in the Pain Coach Workshops. Chronic pain and injury is a specialist field requiring a broad knowledge of a number of areas together with experience of working with suffering individuals. These include science pertaining to pain and survival, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, sociology, anatomy and physiology to name but a few. This knowledge then has to be applied phenomenologically with meaning and effect. We need a means to deliver treatment and provide practical tools that allow the person to pursue a purpose and achieve results. The means that I propose and offer is that of coaching, pain coaching, which is all about getting the best of an individual.
A brief insight into the vulnerabilities for developing chronic pain is useful. We are essentially on a timeline, which means that every episode in our lives is logged as an experience with a learning effect. Significant events in particular will shape us as we journey through the ups and downs. We know that early life stressors have a particular effect as the biology that protects us is evoked at a young age, at a time when the person is maturing and reliant upon others for safety and security. When this secure base is compromised, there is a vulnerability to suffering a range of complete person problems from depression to irritable bowel syndrome to chronic pain states. The sensitivity manifests in different ways in different people of course. In recent times we have heard about terrible situations, which will impact upon brain, body and behaviour ~ the 3 come as a unified package of course, the person. Dyer has bravely described his early experiences, which will have been a huge factor in how he subsequently sensed himself and the world.
In terms of pain, as a perception in the face of a perceived threat, the responses and actions become increasingly prevalent as the range of threats increases. For the player, these threats come in the form of their own thoughts (inner dialogue) like any other person, but also from the pressures of performing, from the club, from the fans, from not understanding their pain and why it persists, as well as other day to day influences. Peak performance emerges from a focused approach, from having energy, from being in flow and from minimising distractions. It is the inner dialogue that forms the greatest distraction.
Players must understand pain as the first step. It is their pain, and they can be given knowledge and tools to manage and overcome the problem. They understand that the experience is also affected by distractions that come in the form of old beliefs about pain and injury together with the aforementioned pressures. As Dyer realised, “So I hadn’t been pulling my hamstring at all. It just felt like it. Fans and others see an injury prone player but do not know the reality of pain”.
“So I hadn’t been pulling my hamstring at all. It just felt like it. Fans and others see an injury prone player but do not know the reality of pain” ~ Kieron Dyer
For anyone to manage and overcome a pain problem, an encouraging environment must be created in which the knowledge and skills are put into practice. This would include alleviating the pressures in the best way so that the focus can be on recovery within a realistic time frame. This time frame may not suit everyone, but the risks of ignoring this for the sake of a hasty return are high. A player clearly has the strengths of focus and perseverance to enable him or her to reach the professional level. They will also have overcome a number of challenges and set backs along the way. Drawing out examples of these helps the player establish the characteristics they hold, which they can use to address the current challenge of pain and injury. Maintaining a focus upon the right steps and managing the consequences of drifting off course is the route to success, encouraged and enabled by skilful clinicians who share the picture of the desired outcome. This is no different to clarifying where you are sailing your boat, setting sail in that direction and using skills and strengths to maintain course, manage the boat in tricky waters and get back on course as quickly as possible.
A programme to address persistent pain and injury (the two are different as you will know) must be complete. The clinician establishes the full story, the back story, the context and the circumstances before confirming with the player where he or she is going. This is why knowing your players is vital, and being able to have open conversations that are more likely when we practice deep listening and create an encouraging, compassionate environment. The biopsychosocial model is one that offers a framework to consider all of the factors, but of course it is how they all come together as the experience of the person that is important. It is the person who feels pain, not the body part, and hence ‘how the person is’ becomes highly relevant together with their approach to life and challenges. This style of doing life, possibility or problem, opportunity or obstacle, will often play out when it comes to pain. And this is where we deliver new choices that are the basis for moving onwards.
There are many challenges to managing and treating a complex, chronic and persistent pain and injury problem in football, especially in the professional game. Dyer describes the experience from the player perspective, delivering a stark insight. Players at the top level may receive vast rewards for their abilities, yet they are under a range of pressures that have a huge impact on pain and injury that need to be understood and addressed skilfully, to maximise the potential for recovery and return to play. This is always the goal.
Richmond delivers The Pain Coach Workshop for Football ~ a 1 day workshop for medical teams who want to build on their skills to be able to effectively manage the range of factors that need addressing in persistent and chronic cases of pain and injury. The Pain Coach Workshop for Sport is a more general experience for problem pain in sports. Call us now to book your workshop t. 07518 445493