The Dark Ages of Coaching: How Not to Deal With Injury

Over the weekend, Indiana University Head Football Coach Kevin Wilson was "forced to resign". Investigative reporting by both ESPN and the Indianapolis Star revealed that Wilson was fired for the mistreatment of players, particularly with regard to injury.

In college I majored in history. In almost all situations you can look into the past and find glaring problems in the way people were treated by those in power. It is a much harder to task to fairly evaluate what will be said about our current era in the future. But I believe that some day in the near future people will regard what went on in this era of athletic coaching as the dark ages.

As a coach, I've learned to give athletes the benefit of the doubt when they tell you they are in pain. The risk of pushing someone through injury when you shouldn't far outweighs the risk of allowing someone to "fake" a malady. Many coaches go the other direction, pushing athletes through and resisting getting their problems properly evaluated.

I learned a chilling lesson when I was a swimmer in college. I had a teammate, one of the best swimmers to ever come through our program. In the pre-season, playing a game of waterpolo, he had over extended his arm trying to make a catch. Afterwards he said his shoulder hurt but thought nothing of it.

When they season began the pain persisted, but he was told that he had "tendonitis" and to apply ice to the shoulder after practice. When the pain worsened, he got to kick a bit more. But instead of improving, the shoulder pain continued to progress. He was an essential part of our team in all meets, and so he continued to compete despite excruciating pain that often left him in tears after races.

Everything came to a head on our winter training camp. He was my roommate. As with every training camp, there was a competition. In many cases, these competitions are not significant to the season, they are more like glorified scrimmages. I remember my coach coming by to tell us what we would be swimming in the scrimmage.

My teammate told him "no". He would not take part in the competition. Coach blew up, belittled him. A screaming match ensued. I remember being in my room, petrified.

A few weeks later, my teammate returned to competition, swimming a 500 freestyle at the behest of our coach in order to try and get a league dual meet win. Afterwards, he insisted on getting an MRI on the shoulder. He had a torn labrum that would require surgery and a 6-9 month rehab. His swimming career was over.

Cynical analysis of the Kevin Wilson's resignation indicates that had he been more successful he likely would have been given a pass on player mistreatment. That's probably true. All the Athletic Departments I have been involved with are loathe to hold a coach accountable for player mistreatment, and only do so when pressured from the outside.

Athletes need to know what is right when it comes to managing their health, and speak out when they are not treated properly, to leverage that outside pressure. This can be incredibly hard, as unless outside help comes, they will be highly compromised within their own team and organization.