It is a goal of many to have a career in the sports world. As an athletic trainer, I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by talented and gifted athletes willing to endure the daily rigors of their sport. After 20 years of working with high level athletes, it has become obvious that very few athletes get to the top of their sport from pure genetics alone. The natural talent must be matched with the dedication to perfect their skill set. But, it also must be combined with the intangibles that rarely get emphasized in today’s sports world. Through my experiences, it has become more and more evident that the attributes that separate the elite athletes from the rest are more mental than physical. I believe one of those overlooked attributes is the ability to show empathy towards your teammates when things don’t go as planned. And, very rarely in sports do things go as planned.
As a sports medicine professional in the collegiate setting, I get to see athletes at the top of their game. But, I have also been on the field with an athlete who just felt his knee explode or his limbs go completely numb. I have walked an athlete through the tunnel and into the athletic training room and told him the news that he fears the most. I have been the sole person responsible for telling an athlete that his season is likely over. It is during these times that even the strongest athletes are brought to uncontrollable emotion as they come to realize their identity has just been lost. It is often felt that their thousands of hours of blood, sweat, and tears have now been wasted. The stages of grief begin. It’s a humbling environment and one that often occurs simultaneously with the sounds of the crowd cheering for the athlete who has just replaced them. It is obvious that the games and their teammates will continue to move on without them as their team implements the clichéd “next guy up” mentality. It is an environment that commonly screams for empathy, but it can very often be completely void of any signs of it.
The best coaches, teammates, and medical professionals who I have worked with all demonstrate the innate ability to show empathy. This skill is rarely taught, hard to develop, and challenging to implement. However, it is my belief that it is a clinical skill that should be taught in the classroom for all health care professions and must also be taught and reinforced amongst coaches and athletes. There is significant research that shows that sincere empathy yields positive clinical results in medicine and sports. Expressed empathy by team members can produce a calming effect in athletes that creates a sense of belonging and purpose. It allows them to redirect positive energy and give them the confidence needed to overcome injury by encouraging greater effort in the rehabilitation process. Teams that show empathy to their teammates create a healthy environment for everyone to work and grow. This is true whether it is the healthy superstar, the backup or role player, or the athlete who can no longer physically perform due to injury or illness. Listening, giving positive reinforcement, being all-inclusive with team activities, and slowly building back self-confidence can all lead to the successful return of a broken athlete. The athletes and teams that are able to handle their setbacks in a positive way always seem to find ways in which to win. It is common in the sports community for coaches and teams to obsess over the thousands of details that may or may not affect winning. Empathy towards team and teammates seems like an obvious, easy, and cost effective way of providing an environment to do so. And best of all, empathy addresses the athlete as a person. So, regardless of whether the injured athlete ever regains his ability to compete at the same level again...there will always be a day in which he can’t perform at that level. In an age where these men and women are looked at as superhuman, empathy reminds us all they are still human.
Mark Peters- NCAA Athletic Trainer, Athlete, Husband, Father