How to Handle Injuries

By Matt Krumrie | May 28, 2015, 10:06 a.m. (ET)

Wrestlers are known for their mental and physical toughness. They often overcome many challenges to achieve great things. But they can’t perform at their best if they are injured or if they aren't taking necessary steps to prevent, rehabilitate and recover from injuries.

"Obviously, there's no way to entirely prevent wrestlers, or any athlete in any sport to be injury free," notes Jason Stauffenberg, a coach with the Team Illinois Women's National Freestyle/Folkstyle team. And in the world of youth wrestling—where growing bodies are still developing—rushing back from injury is especially ill-advised. 

"In Illinois there are tournaments every weekend of the year," says Stauffenberg. "If one of our own goes down regardless of severity, they know that there's time to get back. There's plenty of time to heal and get back to work and train and compete."

Not everyone in wrestling shares this attitude, but they should, says Doug Wyland, a sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at the Steadman Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas. Wyland was an NCAA finalist and two-time All-American for the University of North Carolina in 1989 and 1990. He says the "wrestling tough" mentality can sometimes get wrestlers in trouble when it comes to dealing with injuries.

"A guy pops his shoulder out once or twice and hides it, not saying anything or refusing to go to the doctor because he wants to keep his spot in the starting lineup," says Wyland. "What he overlooks is, if it comes out the third time, the damage is far worse than if he had it taken care of after the first time."

Understanding limitations with an injury is crucial to managing rehabilitation, recovery and return, says Ian Assael, head coach of the Bison Legend Wrestling Club in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Once the details of the injury and the limitations associated with it have been identified, then a workout and rehabilitation program can be designed based on each individuals needs. And it’s key to realize every wrestler—and every injury—is different.

"If an elbow is injured, a wrestler can still do many things to stay in shape," says Assael. "If it's a knee, the limitations are different. In both cases there are alternative training methods a wrestler can do to be productive.”

Taking the necessary time to heal, especially at the youth level, is what’s most important, however.

"I think the key for parents and coaches is to support the athlete and be sure that they do not rush back to compete before they are ready," says Assael. "Many times when athletes return to soon from an injury they injure themselves further and actually delay their recovery."

Brandon Siakel, works closely with U.S. National Team members, including wrestlers, as a strength and conditioning coach with the United States Olympic Committee. He says that consistency, attention to detail, and patience are crucial in returning the athlete back to performing at a high level while decreasing the risk of the injury occurring again in the future.  Before starting any rehabilitation, the athlete should first consult with a certified sports medicine professional to provide guidance and that any rehabilitation plan should not be started without the guidance of that certified sports medicine professional. 

"The coach, athlete, parent, and strength and conditioning professional should devise a progressive strength and conditioning program that will work around the injured area without causing pain or compensatory movements," says Siakel. He adds that the rehabilitation process should include this checklist:

  • Physical benchmarks/standards that athlete must meet in order to progress in sport training/competition.
  • Predicted time-frame of rehabilitation process, with the understanding that the time-frame is not set in stone and is subject to change depending how athlete responds to rehabilitation.
  • Setting up a training volume and intensity timeline while striving for a timeline for return to action.

Differentiating between pain and injury is also important, Wyland says. Wrestlers may occasionally experience discomfort associated with prepatellar bursitis from banging knees while shooting on an opponent, or defending shots. "That's not an injury, that's pain," Wyland explains. But if your son or daughter is continuallycomplaining about any kind of pain or discomfort, he tells parents to get it checked out immediately by an athletic trainer, physical trainer, or sports medicine doctor.

Returning to competition should be done gradually after an injury, Wyland says. An individual should pass physical therapy tests, then specific milestones in practice and before returning to competitive matches. Patience is key, since recovery can be uneven at times. "It could be two steps forward and one step back, but it's progression,” says Wyland

"When you return from injury, you gain confidence the more you get back to full strength," says Wyland. "This helps mentally, and helps the wrestler hit the mat confident they are back to full strength. If you wrestle worried about the injury you won't wrestle your best and it will show."