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The Ailing Athlete

BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Injuries and illness are a part of athletics. They’re inevitable and every coach must adapt to them when they occur. Fortunately, some prevention is possible. Training load, rest, rigging, basic hygiene—all of this can help maximize performance and minimize absences. When health problems occur look for patterns. If suddenly a couple of athletes have rib trouble then adjust accordingly; it’s likely the training is a contributing factor. With isolated or varied problems there probably isn’t anything systematically wrong.

When a problem does occur, tend to both the individual athlete and the team. Don’t get mad. Though frustrated, now is not the time to criticize the athlete for behavior that may have contributed to the problem. After they return to heath, address what could have been done better. Show concern, facilitate care, and be emotionally supportive for now.

You’re a coach, not a doctor, so do not diagnose the problem—even if your experience gives you the confidence to do so. If sick, isolate the individual until you know he or she is not contagious. Tell them, “You can help the team by not having physical contact with your teammates right now.”

Generally speaking, there should be no rowing if the athlete has a fever or rowing makes the injury worse. If they can row without further compromising their health, then figure out how healthy you and the athlete want them to be before they return. The better athlete at 80 percent may be preferred to the next one at 100 percent if the championships are fast-approaching. It’s important that the athlete, medical professionals, parents, and coach all must endorse this decision, but it’s reasonable under many circumstances. If racing is still months away, give the athlete time to fully recover and be careful not to return too soon. Do not, however, let what can’t be done stop the athlete from training. There are plenty of things a rower can do to improve, even when he or she is unable to row. Time out of the boat does not necessarily require time off.

Caring for the team is equally important. Keep moving ahead. If one athlete goes down, another will step up. Remain positive and upbeat. Do not articulate a specific timeline for the athlete’s return. 

If the coach behaves anxiously, the team will too. Let them see that you care for the athlete but that you are not troubled for the team. The athlete’s absence is a hurdle, not the end of the road. This has the added benefit of often speeding the return of the unhealthy athlete. Many athletes will find a way to get healthy quickly if they see that the team is able to keep pushing ahead without them. The good ones don’t want to miss out on the fun.

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