As an athlete you know about pushing through pain and going beyond limits, but is this okay when you’re injured? Should you be playing with injury? Should you harden up and sacrifice yourself for the team, or should you listen to voices of caution? Often there’s no easy answer.
The ultimate tough guy?
Richie McCaw gave us an extreme example of pushing through pain and playing with injury in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. He had surgery on a broken bone in his foot before the tournament. Unfortunately, not only did the break not heal, but a surgically inserted screw also came loose, causing more pain. So throughout the tournament, Richie was playing with injury. He had pain with every step and had to make a conscious effort not to limp. Richie decided to manage his injury between games and completely ignore it during games. For the sake of his team and because of the magnitude of the tournament, he set aside his own wellbeing and played hard no matter what it cost him.
As an ardent supporter of the All Blacks, I can understand Richie’s decision. But as a physiotherapist, I recognise the potential for significant, ongoing damage that playing with injury like that can cause. And as a sportsperson, I am in awe of the mental strength and determination that delivering on this decision demonstrates. But was it the right thing to do?
Important factors to consider on playing with injury
Whenever a sportsperson faces an injury, there are tough decisions to make and many factors to consider, such as:
- Severity of the injury;
- Timetable for future competition;
- Level and significance of the competition;
- History of the injury– is it a first time occurrence or an ongoing problem?
- Possible complications of playing on;
- Implications for selection chances.
All these factors will impact your decision of whether to pull out and if so, for how long. There are times when rest and avoidance of activity is necessary, however there may be times when playing on is the right call. Here are some tips to help your decision-making process.
When playing with injury is possible
- The injury does not involve the head, neck or back – brain and spinal injuries should never be messed with. If the injury involves one of these areas, do not take chances, no sporting endeavour is worth risking possible brain damage or spinal cord injury.
- Pain is localised and can be minimised by supporting the area e.g. with strapping tape, which will also cut the risk of further injuring the area.
- Pain is not intensifying or spreading as you get moving.
- The injury is minor and the competition is significant.
When it’s time to head for the showers
- The injury involves the head, neck or back – at the very least the injury should be fully assessed and cleared by a medical professional (not a coach or supporter on the sideline) before resuming play.
- Any factors that may indicate a broken bone such as nausea, light-headedness, deathly pale face.
- Pain intensifying or spreading as you get moving.
- History of repeated recent injury to that area.
A personal perspective
As a Christian, I have found a helpful, balanced perspective in the Bible. It talks about putting others before ourselves and not being selfish or conceited, so there are times when we may need to put the good of the team ahead of our own needs and push on. The other side of the coin is that our bodies are seen as a gift from God, and like all gifts should be cared for, respected and honoured; we should not abuse or neglect them.
I believe God wants us to give our all and be the best we can be, but not in a way that is harmful to our long-term wellbeing. For example, playing another season when your body is already carrying several injuries, may well mean years of pain and discomfort in the future: is that the right call?
In each instance of injury, the final decision as to whether to play on or not is usually in your hands and the best call is very often, not clear-cut or obvious. In those moments, seek wise counsel, weigh up the pros and cons, and make the best call you can. Honour your body, honour your team, and find the balance for you.
Injury can be lonely and distressing. Sports Chaplains offer support to injured players and their families, including home and hospital visits. Contact us for help.
How do you decide whether to play?
Have you ever played with an injury and regretted it?