Fear of Injury

My son is 14 and starting to play ice hockey with 15,16,17,18 year olds he is very tentative and showing nervous behavior on the ice. Will it pass? How can I help him? what can he do to get over it?

Concerned Dad

Fear of Injury Dear Concerned Dad,

I don't believe there's anything unusual about a 14 year old being concerned about being hurt by older (and, I assume, much stronger) kids than himself...It's possible, however, that a physical sport such as ice hockey may not be the right sport for your son. Did he choose the sport? Or did you choose it for him? If it is the latter, then I think you should rethink having him involved in ice hockey and allow him to choose some other sport that may not be quite as violent. But if he chose the sport, and has a genuine interest in it, then I think it will be matter of time before he adjusts to it. But I wouldn't push him. Allow him to adjust at his own pace.

Marv Fremerman

Mr. Fremerman,

I appreciate your willingness to contribute to the exrx website and provide such a valuable service. However, I was a bit surprised to see your advice to the young rugby player on the website - Mental Toughness.

First, you describe the problems of another athelete, who is obviously Maicel Malone. I am always concerned about privacy and wonder what sort of release you received from her to put that information on the website?

Second, I am a new coach of women's rugby and over the course of my playing the sport have seen players who have developed a fear of injury. My observation has been that once a player "loses their nerve" they are pretty much done with the game at a competitive level. I understand the situation where a player's personal life may interfere with their onfield performance, but I think there may also be other issues involved with this particular problem. Ultimately I am wondering what a coach can do to assist an athelete that is showing signs of fear of injury which affects their play. Bear in mind that it is a legitimate concern as there is always some risk of injury with contact sports.

Thanks again for your online advice.

Leisa Fearing

Dear Leisa,

You make a good point. Perhaps, I did go into too much detail regarding a past client, but there has always been an unspoken agreement between my clients and me that it was permissible to use the circumstances of their past experiences if it would help someone who may be struggling with similar issues.

Regarding the second part of your e-mail, players who have developed a fear of injury generally fall into one of two categories: Those who had been previously injured while participating in their sport (i.e., a baseball player, who, while batting, is beaned and severely injured by a 90 mile per hour fast ball) and those who have not been personally injured but inexplicably become fearful. I think your point about "losing their nerve" applies to the former, but not to the latter. And I do agree with you that there may also be other issues involved with this problem.

I have found that athletes who participate in contact sports and are least likely to be fearful of being injured are those who developed beliefs about pain and injury when they were children. For example, professional boxers and football players I've worked with have belief systems regarding pain that are different from most mortal human beings. While growing up, they were programmed by their parents to believe it was "no big deal" to break a finger or a leg or arm. It's possible that a young girl on your team who did not receive this type of programming at an early age may be more susceptible to developing an unfounded fear of injury later in life. In its extreme form, as I'm sure you know, these take the forms of phobias.

As to what a coach, such as yourself, can do to assist an athlete who is showing signs of fear of injury which is affecting her play, I would first have her take a self-esteem, self-evaluation test which you can find on the internet by contacting JD Hawkins at [email protected] Just tell him I've given you permission to use it with members of your team. (People with low self-esteem are not risk-takers and often are looking for reasons to fail.)

Second, I would have your team evolve into a support group (if it hasn't already) to provide the athlete with an opportunity to discuss her fears with team members and to receive their feedback, without anyone being judgmental. This process will also enhance team chemistry and team bonding.

And finally, my daughter is a part time instructor at Stanford and one of her students, a rugby player, wrote an excellent class paper on the concept of "detachment" as it applies to Rugby. I would be happy to send you a few pages from my new book which discuss her ideas or, if I can locate the original document, I'm sure she would not mind my sharing it with you. It's not available on the internet, but I could mail it or fax it to you.

One last comment: if a player's fear of injury develops into a full-blown phobia, she should experiment with visualization techniques that allow her to experience her fear in her mind's eye.

Thanks again for your inquiry. Be sure to let me know if you have more questions.

Marv Fremerman

Hi. I was interested in a reference you made about the use of visualization by an ice hockey player in a response you were giving to someone with a mental block about kayaking. Do you have any suggestions that would be appropriate for helping a 10 year old who has always loved playing hockey but is now immobilized by his fear of being injured by being checked? I hate to think that he will give up a sport he loves.


Dear Janis,

Thank you for your e-mail. From what you've described, I doubt that any type of visualization exercise will be of much value to your 10-year old. Very often, when a child develops a sudden fear in his or her sport, there's generally a reason why. For example, I once worked with a college girls' softball team and their third baseman, who was one of the best at her position in the entire league, suddenly began throwing wildly to first. Her coaches tried all kinds of ways to correct the
problem, all of them behavioral -- such as putting a piece of white tape in the mitt of the first baseman to enhance the target...video taping the third baseman throwing wildly to first...even blindfolding her and having her throw to first without being able to see her target. None of these approaches worked, so I asked the coach if she would allow me to take this young lady into a private room and discuss her problem with here. What evolved was, that a day before she began throwing wildly, she was sliding into second base and the ball thrown by the catcher hit her in the nose and broke her nose. Now this young lady was very religious, having come from a very religious family, and she somehow implanted in her mind that she was being "punished by the Lord" which was subsequently affecting her throwing ability. I asked her if she had ever discussed this with her minister and she said no, she hadn't. I suggested she do so during the coming Sunday and on Monday, she was her old self again, throwing perfectly to first base. She had to be told by her minister that she wasn't, in fact, being punished by the Lord...that the Lord doesn't work that way...and once she heard his words, her game returned to normal. I'm not saying that this directly applies to your son, but very often, children keep issues in their lives bottled-up and won't tell anyone (even their parents) and by doing so, it affects their own feelings of self-worth and creates not only psychological baggage, but also a negative attitude. They begin to see their world around them from a negative perspective and one of the characteristics of someone with low self-esteem are: they are not risk-takers. So it's possible that something has happened in your son's life that has had a negative effect on him and he's chosen, for whatever reason, not to discuss it. You might try to set up a private meeting for him with his hockey coach who, if he's the right kind of coach, will listen to whatever your son might be withholding (assuming, of course, that this is the issue) and not be judgmental...and if that doesn't work, perhaps you should consider some kind of one-on-one counseling -- or even a support group with kids his own age. (The support group could actually be his hockey team.) I much prefer support groups to one-on-one counseling since participants realize there's really nothing wrong with them after having heard other kids of similar age who are having similar problems. I hope this will be of some value to you. Good luck.

Marv Fremerman

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