Mindfulness and Sports-Related Injuries by Dean C. Jones
Whenever I reflect on childhood, my fondest memories always circle back to cold Sunday mornings in Connecticut, rallying around the television with my family, watching Joe Montana and Jerry Rice of the San Francisco 49ers do their thing. They were like magic- explosive and blisteringly fast, yet focused, meticulous and calculated. I loved the competition, dedication and the strategy that went into crafting a winning franchise. One of the greatest challenges facing any team was the risk of season-ending or even career-ending injuries. Like an ominous shadow, the threat of injury loomed over every play-making athlete. When an injury would occur, it would alter the fate of both player and team.
Inevitably, each season will render great athletes relegated to the sidelines and OR with season-ending injuries. I’ve seen this happen to my favorite players at least once in their careers. I’ve even endured similar injuries myself as a teen athlete. The most disparaging aspect of a bad tear or sprain at that age isn’t the pain, but recovery. Weeks away from your team feels like you’re letting everyone down. Weeks away from socializing feels like an eternity sequestered from friends and invaluable adolescent experience. It’s with this insight that I view and appreciate the suffering of young patients seeking treatment at our urgent care facility.
In my four years in the medical field, I’ve seen approximately 12-24 patients per month who seek treatment for sports-related injuries. About half of those are adolescents. While treatment is generally straightforward (X-ray for fractures and provide splint, or apply ace wrap and R.I.C.E. for sprains), the four to eight week recovery seems to be the most upsetting. And understandably so! For adult patients, a few weeks of recovery simply means they’ll be binge-watching Netflix on weekends instead of meeting up with their weekend warrior buddies for recreational soccer games. For a teenager, that time away can be devastating.
So what can be done? Of course we strive to provide the best care for our patients, to permit quick and effective recovery, but I think we can do more on the side of prevention. As is the case with all things, education comes first. One of the greatest tools available to us in staving off sports-related injuries is mindfulness. Yes, you read that right. Establishing and internalizing the mind-body connection is essential to maximizing athletic performance and mitigating risk of injury. This is why EVEN IN THE NFL some have taken to ballet, yoga and mindfulness meditation. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, the Seattle Seahawks…the list of incredible sports figures who rely on mindfulness is growing each year. Very slowly it’s begun trickling down to youth sports programs, but has yet to achieve its watershed moment. At this point, you may be asking yourself “What is mindfulness?”
My first conception of mindfulness came from the Stanford-educated neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris. He explains succinctly across his various works, the value in taking time to examine the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the body. To allow one’s mind to ease and focus on the breath entering the body, the sensation of each appendage making contact with whatever the body is seated upon. A quick Google search will yield all the information you need to get started. The more time and effort we can expend in easing the chatter of our minds and focusing on the inner-workings of our bodies, the more “in-tune” we become to our living machinery. This can start with meditation or yoga, but extends into every activity in which we partake. Not simply examining our breath and bodily sensations when seated comfortably in a private space, but eventually while we interact with the world, go for a run, do chores and play sports.
Daily practice of this kind has demonstrably positive effects on improving mood, cognitive function and discipline. Most importantly in regard to this article, it aids one in understanding and internalizing their own physiology. Sam Harris is definitely not the first to discover this, he is however, largely responsible for the proliferation of the idea in the West. As I’ve come to explore it myself, I notice striking similarities across many disciplines. Daoists, Buddhists and some of the more scrupulous yogis were way ahead of us on this one. Putting all supernatural and metaphysical claims aside, Western medicine is now providing empirical evidence for the advantages these types of exploratory exercises in the mind-body relationship can yield. Expending a little time and effort in examining this relationship has profound implications for maximizing physical exertion and minimizing risk of bodily injury. The more aware we are of ourselves, the more we can internalize the concept of mind and body being one amalgamated organism, the less prone we are to move in ways that damage the body. I’m not saying this will make sprains and tears a thing of the past, but I believe we could see a reduction in their frequency.
If mindfulness (ballet, yoga, meditation) is a valuable tool, how do we impart this to children and teens? That’s a difficult obstacle, for sure. Perhaps pamphlets, posters or some other form of literature could be available to parents and teens in waiting rooms, or even spearheading a campaign to inform school sports programs and youth groups. The key here would be to have a succinct and engaging explanation why these practices are useful and how they would affect them personally. I suspect the most effective avenue is for parents to understand this so they can impart some form of practice in their children at a young age.
We spend our entire existence relegated to an island of consciousness. With all the time we expend exploring the world outside ourselves, it couldn’t hurt to set aside a few minutes each day exploring the world within ourselves and truly bridging the gap between mind and body. The more we “listen” and are aware of our bodies, the less prone we are to unwittingly damaging it. If only Jerry Rice had this in his toolkit, he may not have had that horrible, side-lining injury in ’97 and he would have gone on to setting unbreakable records. Oh wait, he did set unbreakable records? Well, maybe if we get our kids to engage in mindfulness, they’ll go on to outperform the almighty Rice. Though I doubt it. Go Niners!
- F. Zeidan et al. 2011. “Brain Mechanisms Supporting the Modulation of Pain by Mindfulness Meditation.” Pain 31: 5540-48 (Link: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3090218/); Indirect: S. Harris 2014. “Waking Up.” 35.
The information provided is for general interest only and should not be misconstrued as a diagnosis, prognosis or treatment recommendation. This information does not in any way constitute the practice of medicine, or any other health care profession. Readers are directed to consult their health care provider regarding their specific health situation. Marque Medical is not liable for any action taken by a reader based upon this information.