The Road To Recovery: 3 Ways NFL Teams Can Increase Engagement With Players On IR
Originally published in partnership with The 33rd Team
In the NFL, injuries are simply part of the game.
As former New York Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson put it on The 33rd Team’s most recent Wednesday Call, “There’s a 100% injury rate. It’s not a matter of if, but when.”
With the margin between players being so small, and the average length of an NFL career just 2.7 years, injured players experience a wide variety of emotions ranging between fear, hurt, anger, shame, embarrassment, and even depression.
“There’s a sense of identity for the player who says, ‘This is who I am. I am a football player. Now all of a sudden I’m not that, so who am I?’” Dr. Scott Goldman says. “For some, especially if it is a significant injury, this becomes a moment where they experience life without sport. It’s an opportunity to contemplate a life after sport.”
To keep injured players engaged, the traditional mentality is to have players continue to attend practices and meetings to get “mental repetitions,” but that can inadvertently be a lose-lose scenario.
“They try to keep you involved. You typically still go to meetings and stand at practice,” says former NFL Tight End Jake Butt, who retired from the NFL this season after an injury-riddled career. “In a sense, that’s mental torture. We’re there, but we’re not really there. It’s almost like standing behind a glass wall.”
“Injured players get treatments when other players are in meetings. But what are they supposed to do when the PT or ATC are out on the field tending to practices?” Goldman says. “It can be very isolating, and while the old school mindset is to have them be engaged from afar, that can be painful. They’re out there watching someone else do their job, which can breed insecurity.”
If the traditional method for keeping injured athletes engaged and mentally healthy is not working, how can teams change that?
Step 1: Keep Injured Players Involved With Game Planning
When Cameron Wake was out for the year in 2015 with an Achilles injury, Mike Tannenbaum quickly realized that the team needed to come up with a creative way to keep one of their most important veterans engaged.
“We could tell from simply looking at his face that it really pained him to come in every day and not be able to play,” Tannenbaum says. “We ended up giving him the opportunity to write up scouting reports on offensive tackles in the upcoming draft.
“We said, ‘Hey Cam, you have to go out and beat offensive tackles for a living. There’s things that you’ll see that we will never see from a scouting perspective.’ And that was a way to keep him engaged.”
Similarly, one NFL team that Goldman has worked with developed a strategy for keeping players on injured reserve involved through advance scouting.
“The head coach would meet with injured players individually and spend about an hour of his time each week with them to hear them break down film and their scouting report of their opponent,” Goldman says. “For those players, having a moment to connect one on one with the head coach gave a sense of connection. It was special for the head coach to dedicate that amount of time to each injured player.”
While he admits that there is no finite solution and that it must be a case-by-case basis, Jake Butt suggests that making a concerted effort to involve players more heavily in their positional meetings can help.
“Maybe you have the guy that is on IR teach the position meeting, or a little segment within the meeting, to keep them actually feeling like they’re doing something to help their teammates win rather than just having to sit in the back of the room and pretend to participate when you know there’s no film or anything for him there,” Butt says.
“The more you can do to actually give them something tangible and practical to feel as if they are helping the team, the better.”
Step 2: Give Injured Players A Sense of Community
In his past experiences working with teams, Dr. Goldman implemented support groups for players with long term injuries to give them a chance to connect and share.
“One of the things I noticed in my transition from working for colleges to pro teams is that pro guys don’t hang around the building a whole lot,” Goldman says. “Where university student-athletes primarily have sport and school, professional athletes have businesses to manage and families. Another thing to consider is that some pro players stay in hotels or rentals during the season and their inner circle of family and friends are somewhere else. When a player in this situation gets injured, the hotel room can be very isolating.
“The backbone to depression is hopelessness (it’s never going to get better), helplessness (there’s nothing I can do about it), and isolation (I’m all alone on this issue). To try to negate that long term injury producing depression, creating a support group was a way we felt could eliminate all three of these issues.”
Step 3: Establish Communication, Trust, and Compassion
In Kyle Wilson’s mind, the most important part of the process for injured players is to have open communication between the player and team regarding rehabilitation time and a player’s level of pain tolerance.
“For players growing older in the league, I know the one thing they don’t want to do is put bad film together,” Wilson says. “So nobody wants to continue to play through injuries.”
What underlies that idea of constant transparent communication is a level of trust.
“One thing I tell coaches to help them establish trust with their players is to focus on unsolicited touch points,” Goldman says. “What I mean by that is that when a coach is driving home or taking a break from game planning, just shooting a text to a player or multiple players saying, ‘Hey man. I was thinking about you… Hey, how are you holding up?… Anything I can do to help?’
“Unsolicited touch points, especially when someone is not engaged with the system daily, can be really meaningful to the relationship dynamic.”
Building a high-level relationship based on trust and continued through communication cannot always be achieved without compassion.
While sympathy is saying “I’m sorry you’re in pain,” and empathy is saying “I feel your pain,” compassion is when you say “I’ll do whatever I can to alleviate your pain.”
When dealing with injured professional athletes, compassion is the most important thing. And as Goldman tells, effectively showing compassion is not just about asking, “What should we do?” but also, “What should we not do?”
“A lot of times coaches want to take the approach of saying, ‘I love you, man,’ but I remind them there is reason to consider that strategy because there may come a time where you need to cut or trade that player, or they may witness you cutting or trading a teammate who you also expressed fondness for,” Goldman says. “Sometimes someone tells a player that everything is going to be fine, when they may not necessarily be able to make that promise. I remind coaches, ‘when you say ‘I love you’ or ‘everything is going to be fine,’ is that to alleviate their discomfort, or yours?’ If your intentions are to support them, then your approach will be more authentic and likely will resonate with the player.”
“And if a coach is unsure what to do, I suggest they listen to the player and learn. Then ask them, ‘What can I do to help? What do you need from me? How can I best support you while you are going through this?’”