DUBLIN, Ireland — If you’ve ever played sports, you may have heard all sorts of clichés regarding pain. A study finds phrases like “walk it off” and “rub some dirt on it” are all part of a culture in sports that equates pain with weakness. Researchers in Ireland say many athletes admit they fear being judged by others if they reveal they’re dealing with injuries.
A team from Trinity College Dublin interviewed 25 experienced rowers in the country. The group had an average of over 12 years in the sport, but also dealt with lower back pain (LBP) at various points in their athletic careers. The study looked at how these rowers handled what the researchers call a “culture of concealment” when it comes to reporting pain to coaches and teammates.
The study reveals athletes felt compromised by their injuries, but were reluctant to talk about it openly. Athletes reported they feared being excluded by their teams if they told the truth about their LBP.
Respondents also reported feeling pressure to continue training and competing while injured to avoid being branded as weak. The study finds this may lead to both poor mental and emotional experiences on the field as well as further physical damage to their backs. Researchers add all of this can lead to negative impacts on an athlete’s life even after they leave the sport.
“This study presents a powerful message that athletes fear being judged as weak when they have pain and injury. They feel isolated and excluded when injured. They feel that there is a culture within sport that values them only when they are physically healthy. This leads athletes to hide their pain and injury which is likely to lead to poorer outcomes. Some of this may come from within the athlete and some may be reflective of cultures in some settings in the sport,” Dr. Fiona Wilson says in a university release.
Winning ‘at all costs’ comes with price for athletes
Wilson says this isn’t just the case with rowers, suggesting many professional sports take this mentality. For pro sports, researchers find the “win at all costs” motto shifts the priority of athletics from enjoyment to performance. Especially in leagues which pay their players handsome salaries, the Irish team says athletes are quickly treated like commodities and investments rather than people.
“Our findings will impact not just rowers but any athlete who has experienced pain and injury, allowing their perspective to be considered. This will lead to the design of more tailored injury management programs and will also crucially create a sporting environment where an athlete’s physical health and welfare is at the core.”
The study appears in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.