How to Talk to the Injured Athlete in Your Life

Dealing with an injured athlete can be like opening a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get (although nuts are probably in there). When your loved one has a wailing Chimp, your Professor brain can easily tire of playing super-nanny, and so your Chimp comes out too. Arguments can escalate, moodiness and withdrawal can dominate, and you run short of compassion after hearing the same words over and over again. So even if your own Chimp wants to scream, “Can you just shut the f*ck up about your Achilles?” try to bite your lip, clench those buttocks, and follow these steps for dealing with your favorite basket case.

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Focus on empathy, not sympathy

Sympathy is the skill of caring for someone in distress by being understanding and compassionate toward them. I know that all sounds rather noble, but the scientific evidence tells us that it doesn’t really help. In fact, being overly sympathetic can actually delay someone’s ability to get through distress because sympathy requires emotionally siding with them, regardless of whether that emotion is productive or helpful to their recovery. Think of the ugly breakup: “Yes, she is a horrible person, and she doesn’t deserve you.” That’s sympathy.

In contrast, empathy is a nonjudgmental attempt to climb into their world and imagine what it feels like to be them, even for just a moment. When you get there, you try to communicate this understanding to them (e.g., “It’s horrible to feel rejected and betrayed”). Empathy has lots of therapeutic value, whereas sympathy is like getting drunk to cope with bad news. Empathy requires lots of listening and reflection, lots of questions about someone’s emotions, and lots of avoiding the tendency to solve problems even if the solutions seem obvious.

Here are some go-to leads on empathy responses to help you support your injured bundle of joy:

Help them solve their injury appraisal problem

Remember that athletes who don’t cope well with injury almost always have a gremlin in their cognitive appraisal of the injury itself or their ability to cope with it. Invite them to outsource part of their Professor brain mindset to you. You can act as a third party to audit their awed thinking that leads to negative emotion. For example, you could ask them to send you their training diary of pain, tightness, or weird sensations described earlier. You can help prevent them entering another delusion tunnel. Look for patterns or warning signs and use your empathic responses to help talk things through.

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Help build or prompt their use of social support

Numerous scientific studies now show that social support plays a big role in buffering the emotional effect of athletic injury. As a loved one, you can play a role in making sure that your injured athlete doesn’t become socially isolated. Social support can take many forms. It doesn’t just involve “being there to talk” or giving them a ride to a treatment session, although those things are certainly helpful. You might consider reaching out to their training partners to let them know that your athlete would probably welcome a pep-talk from someone other than you.

Take the time to learn about their injury

You can also support your basket case by studying up on their injury so you can talk about it in an informed way. I’ve read so many articles about Lyme disease, tendinopathy, and piriformis syndrome because of Lesley that I’ve now suffered them by proxy. Aside from making you smarter and better at understanding the medical terms that come out of your athlete’s mouth, doing homework communicates that you care about them. That’s love. I do mine with a strong IPA.