The Three Important Steps for Dealing with the Crisis of a ‘Weight Room’ Injury

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 It is undoubtedly the worst feeling you can suffer through as a strength coach, trainer or movement specialist. Unfortunately, many who work in the profession of human movement and performance have or will encounter this experience to some degree. Regardless of how great you may be at delivering a safe and sound program and/or environment to your athletes/clients, there’s always a potential risk of injury to those individuals within your setting.

Injuries are an unfortunate fixture within the world of sports and they are also a perpetual issue in the world of movement and performance training for sports.  While the practice of exercise and movement training continues to grow, develop and evolve in both safety and potency, the risk of injury to individuals who engage in the potentially precarious practice of exercise remains.  We’ve seen or heard of the horrific headlines where athletes are exposed to life threatening and/or serious injuries such as rhabdoymyolis after engaging in exercise.  And there are of-course the gruesome accidents that can potentially leave indelible marks to both the athlete and training staff. Accidents happen all the time and the weight room is no exception. 

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On September 28, 2009, Johnson suffered an injury when the 275 pounds (125 kg) barbell he was lifting fell on his throat while performing a bench press during a routine team workout. Bleeding from his mouth and nose, he was rushed to California Hospital Medical Center and had three emergency surgeries to repair damage to his crushed vocal cord.

      While the risk of harm is rare, a potential for injury exists every time  an athlete steps in the weight room or performs a form exercise.  Take for instance, those athletes who engage in an increasingly popularly form of exercise called Crossfit, which incorporates high-intensity fitness program incorporating elements from several sports and types of exercise. In a 2013 study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers demonstrated that just under 74% of individuals who engaged in Crossfit expressed an injury experience as a result of their training (Hak, Hodzovic, Hickey, 2013). This potential for injury has also been demonstrated in other forms of exercise training such as powerlifting. Researchers from the University of Cologne published a study in 2011 in which they concluded that 43% of powerlifters sustained a form of injury during their training (Siewe et al., 2011). Similarly, in a 2002 study published in the American journal of sports medicine, investigators showed that olympic weight lifters expressed a similar rate of injury during training (Raske & Norlin, 2002). Athletes in this study expressed an injury rate of, on average, 2.6 injuries per 1000 hours of activity.  Of these injuries, the most common forms were low back injuries, with an injury rate of 0.43 per 1000 hours (Raske & Norlin, 2002). To this end, regardless of training style, injuries can occur to the training athlete and depending on training stye they can occur relatively often. 

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In a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine, investigators showed that olympic weight lifters experienced an injury rate of , on average, 2.6 injuries per 1000 hours of activity (Raske & Norlin, 2002).

Despite how common it may be within the sports realm the notion of an injured athlete has and will continue to evoke emotional distress from me.  The experience of dealing with an athlete injury in a training setting can often leave some of the most resilient and experienced coaches shaken. Injuries can wipe away potentially progressive plans and completely deride your confidence in people, programs, systems and/or environments.  Athletes injured in the weight room are like scarlet letters that you hold on for life and represent the antithesis of a strength coaches duty.  The ultimate role of a strength coach is to improve an individual’s  potential. Injury has little place in fulfilling this duty. Mike Boyle, world renown strength coach profoundly states that a Strength Conditioning System or Philosophy should rest on a famous principle of the Hippocratic oath – “Do no Harm”.   As strength coaches, athlete safety should be our number one objective and responsibility.

    It would be ingenuous, however,  to believe that the act of exercise and/or performance training does not involve some degree of risk of harm to an athlete.  Especially when consider that the foundation of  strength and mass development involves the breakdown and repair of tissue. While the physiology of tissue adaptation to stress is clear this process does not qualify the fear that all strength coaches, trainers and/or movement specialists experience when an athlete embarks within their training program. On the contrary this fear can have a powerful effect over the, practice, system and philosophy of a strength coach. 

      It is the fear of an athlete experiencing injury that forces strength coaches to make conservative decisions in their program design. The fear of an athlete experiencing injury which can often result in coaches making unfounded generalizations regarding certain movements or exercises. The fear of an athlete experiencing injury which can result in the adoption of certain Strength and Conditioning protocols or athlete requirements.  This fear can keep coaches up at night and restive in their search for best practice, injury free methodologies. However, this earnest search for efficient, effective, sound and safe forms of training does not belie the truth. Athletes can, have and will hurt themselves training.  It’s an uncomfortable truth especially since I am in the business of striving for improvements in athlete safety and potential in performance.  Thus, I must be clear in stating that I don’t mean to intimate that athlete injuries in the weight room is acceptable or expected. However, I must not misrepresent the fact that injuries occur to some degree at all levels and in various training settings and arenas regardless of one’s strength training expertise, experience or ethics. At the same, I would obviate the care and the sedulous efforts of our most talented, experienced and knowledgeable of strength coaches if I did not state that smart training leads to less injuries in the training facility/weight room. Regardless of these efforts, injuries occur in the pursuit  of performance and the development of potential. The question we must investigate is not only how do limit injury but also how do we respond when injury occurs. 

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“I would obviate the care and the sedulous efforts of our most talented, experienced and knowledgeable of strength coaches if i did not state that smart training leads to less injuries in the training facility/weight room. “


This post is a reflection on what should take place when strength coaches and trainers are faced with the unfortunate and horrible crisis of injury in the training environment.  I found Bill George’s “Leadership in a Crisis – How To Be a Leader” a very powerful resource for managing these often distressing and complicated situations. His words offer guidance  for the flurry of emotions, thoughts and responses that generally follow the crisis of an injury in performance training setting.

Bill George helps to highlight three important responses when dealing with an injury in the weight room. The first step is to “face reality.” He states that  “leaders need to look themselves in the mirror and recognize their role in creating the problems.” (George, 2017). This statement applies to all strength coaches who experience the crisis of a weight room injury. The first step is to accept responsibility.  A strength coach has a role in any injury that occurs within the strength training environment or under their supervision. In other words, the first step in dealing with a crisis  such as athlete injury under your supervision is to come to terms that you are responsible no matter how inscrutable the circumstances involving the injury.  Accepting responsibility provides the opportunity to move toward the necessary steps of understanding root cause, resolving root cause and taking steps to prevent the root cause of the issue. It is important to state that accepting responsibility is not the same as admitting culpability. Instead, it is the acknowledgement of a leader to seek and provide the truths regarding a situation.  George states “widespread recognition of reality is the crucial step before problems can be solved.” In other words, it is only after the discovery of veracity in a situation can we see a real form of  solution. Truth also breeds Trust as Craig Fugate notes in his article “The True Test of a Successful Crisis Response: Public Trust.” Building public trust is achieved by knowing what to tell the public and your peers. Knowing what to say largely involves the honest delivery of truth.

In acknowledging truths we must also understand the wide range of negative consequences that they can potentially produce – and we must prepare for the worst.  This is the second lesson Bill George provides for demonstrating leadership in a crisis. He states that in a crisis “no matter how bad things are, they will get worse.” (George, 2017) This mindset is integral to not only ensuring an effective solution or method of prevention but also in its execution.  When an injury occurs under our training environment it can be a natural response to avoid thinking of the severity of its consequences. This response may be an unconscious decision to avoid or lessen the pain associated with our role in the occurrence of an injury. As comforting as this strategy may seem, it is best to avoid this approach  for the purpose of developing more effective solutions toward the prevention of the issue. Thinking and preparing for the worst is a useful strategy which can help to eliminate or lessen threats to successful performance in the future. Consider, the process in which Strength Coach Mike Boyle took when removing  spine loaded squat movements as a resource for the lower body development of his athletes. Boyle states:

“The simple reason is that we found the back squat and front squat to be the primary causes of back pain in our athletic population. At any point, in any season, approximately 20% of our athletes would be dealing some kind of back pain that was either caused by squatting or exacerbated by squatting.”

It is safe to assume that Mike Boyle in developing this solution in response to episodes of back injury from his athletes, acknowledged that the injuries to his athletes were his responsibility and that his continued action could pose greater severity to the safety of his athletes. No matter how bad the injury sustained by his athletes were now, his continued approach could result in greater injury in the future.  The solution for Mike Boyle was to eschew squatting altogether in his program design for athletes.  It is a decision which in spite of criticism has help to limit the occurrence of back pain injuries in his facility. Mike’s honest assessment of his history with a particular exercise enabled him to  develop a policy that will likely reduce the incidents of back injuries within his training setting. Being honest with ourselves sometimes requires a change in our perspective and our principles.  This process can be challenging but can be alleviated through another important resource when dealing with crisis – the seeking of help. 

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The solution for Mike Boyle was to eschew squatting altogether in his program design for athletes.  It is a decision which in spite of criticism has help to limit the occurrence of back pain injuries in his facility.

During difficult moments it is important to lean on support and avoid isolation. Bill George states that during a crisis, many leaders attempt to  carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They go into isolation, and think they can solve the problem themselves. As a strength coach it’s important to communicate and reach out to former mentors, teachers and colleagues to help shape perspective and guidance. While a leader needs to acknowledge their responsibility and seek truth, he must also seek help from  his resources to devise solutions and to implement them.

In the end, injuries in the weight room are in many ways inexorable – they are destined to occur. However, our responses when they occur can be vital in limiting the frequency and/or severity of their occurrence. And that is an effort that requires us to take ownership, to be truthful, to treat situations with great severity and to seek the guidance and aid of others. In many ways the challenges and experiences of  athlete injury, can enable us to be a better at dealing with crisis, better in our duties as a strength coach and ultimately better at being a leader.

References

George, B. (2017). “Leadership in Crisis-How to be a Leader.” Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/how-to-lead-in-a-crisis. 

Hak, P. T., Hodzovic, E., Hickey, B. (2013). The nature and prevalence of injury during CrossFit training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1.

Jennings, C. (2017, January 17). Report: 3 Oregon football players hospitalized after ‘grueling’ workouts.Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/18491292/three-oregon-ducks-football-players-hospitalized-strength-conditioning-workouts

Siewe, J., Rudat, J., Röllinghoff, M., Schlegel, U. J., Eysel, P., & Michael, J. W. (2011). Injuries and Overuse Syndromes in Powerlifting. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 32(09), 703-711.

Smith, S. (2009, December 25). USC’s Stafon Johnson talks about injury. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/los-angeles/news/story?id=4769237

Raske, A., Norlin, R. (2002). Injury Incidence and Prevalence among Elite Weight and Power Lifters. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 30(2), 248-256.

23467262_10105572160467560_654197207509059858_oDan Liburd is in his ninth season as a NFL Strength and Conditioning Coach. Liburd has experience in designing, implementing and supervising strength and conditioning programs for various athletic populations. Liburd also has experience in designing and overseeing team nutrition and dietary programs. Liburd is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who earned his Bachelor degree in Exercise Science from Boston University. He has a Master of Science degree from Canisius College in Health and Human Performance and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Health and Human Performance at Concordia University Chicago. Liburd has worked with several professional teams such as the Buffalo Bills and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Liburd has also held various positions in Collegiate Strength and Conditioning programs. He has worked with the Boston University Terriers, Springfield College Pride, American College Yellow Jackets and held positions at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning as well as Peak Performance Physical Therapy. For more articles please check out http://www.doyou-live.com 

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