While discomfort is part of sport, danger shouldn’t be. But how can young athletes learn the difference between the two? Here, board-certified family physician and TrueSport Expert Deborah Gilboa, MD, is sharing three activities designed to help coaches and athletes learn how to differentiate between danger and discomfort, and how to cope with that discomfort when it does happen. As a specialist in youth development and resilience, Gilboa says that the most important skill an athlete can master is the ability to navigate tremendous discomfort in pursuit of a goal, as well as the ability to recognize danger and speak up about it.
Why you need these activities
“At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, we saw some really courageous women who had the knowledge, the insight, and the skills necessary to say that they had hit a limit where they weren’t just dealing with terrible discomfort, they were actually in danger,” Gilboa says. “We want all of our young athletes to have both the ability to navigate tremendous discomfort in pursuit of a goal, and the ability to recognize and speak up when that discomfort becomes actual danger.”
“As a coach, you’re likely used to telling athletes to push through discomfort, and most of the time, that’s probably the right thing to do,” she adds. “But how do you then teach them that it’s okay to speak up when they think they’re in danger? Unfortunately, as the coach, you won’t always know if an athlete is in danger, since every athlete has different limits and limitations. The only way to know for sure is if they don’t stop and end up injured or worse. Since the stakes are so high—actual damage or even death in some cases—it’s okay to err on the side of being too cautious.”
Here are three ways to improve your own understanding of danger and discomfort, and to help athletes understand their own limitations:
1. COACH / PARENT ACTIVITY: Red Flag/Yellow Flag
On a sheet of paper, write down all of the ‘red flags’ that would make you consider pulling a kid from play. Think about both physical and mental signs. Physical signs could be dizziness, fever, dehydration, or a wound. Mental red flags could be an athlete being really sad, or super irritable.
Next, think about the kids that you are training or coaching (or raising, in the case of parents). Now you’re going to make a list of ‘yellow flags,’ or the warning signs that they’re starting to have trouble. These are signs that might not make you pull a kid from play but would warn you that something isn’t working and you may need to do something about it.
Yellow flags are more difficult than red flags and will often be more mental/emotional than physical. For example, they start forgetting their stuff, or stop encouraging their teammates. Perhaps you’re hearing a lot of negative self-talk. Or maybe they’re stepping back from opportunities.
Yellow flags are anything that surprises you, and remember, it doesn’t even have to be something that frustrates you. Sometimes, a kid may surprise you in a way that seems more positive, like an athlete who typically hogs the ball is suddenly not showboating during practice. At first, that might seem like a good thing. But if that’s deeply unusual for that child, it could be a warning sign.
The yellow flags are just as important to watch for as the red ones, and will differ more from child to child, so keep this list on hand and refer to it regularly to remind yourself of signs to watch for. Catching ‘yellow flag’ behaviors early may help an athlete get the help they need.
2. ATHLETE ACTIVITY: DANGER VS DISCOMFORT
In a coach-facilitated conversation, athletes will discuss the definitions and differences between danger and discomfort. Doing this early in the season helps your athletes understand when they should speak up because something feels unsafe, while also encouraging them to lean into ‘positive’ discomfort (like pushing hard in a workout).
Split into two groups: One team will be tasked with the word ‘uncomfortable,’ and the other will have ‘unsafe.’ Each team should come up with a definition as a group, and then list examples, within the context of your sport, of things that are uncomfortable/unsafe.
Come back together, and have each team explain their definitions and examples to each other. And then as a group, work together to come up with differentiators: Ask, ‘How do you know when something is just uncomfortable, or when it’s actually unsafe?’
There is no real “right answer” that you’re trying to get them to. Rather, you’re trying to engage them in a conversation and give the group the language to discuss discomfort and danger. But this way, the next time the athletes are running tough intervals and they’re terribly uncomfortable, you can have a conversation when they try to say, ‘I feel unsafe.’ You can respond with ‘Really? Which of our differentiators does it hit?’ The athlete might be right: They may be pushing beyond their capabilities or struggling with an injury. But for an athlete who’s just struggling with a lack of motivation, it can be a great way to have an honest discussion about pushing through discomfort.
3. ATHLETE ACTIVITY: HEALTHY COPING MECHANISMS
Each athlete should have a sheet of paper separated into three columns. The first part of this activity should be done as either homework or just during a quiet time in practice. You won’t look at their papers, and they don’t have to share anything they don’t want to share.
In the first column, the athlete should make a list of absolutely everything they do to change how they feel when they don’t like how they are feeling. List everything: the good stuff and the bad stuff. This can run the gamut from “I exercise more,” or “I listen to music,” to the less than admirable stuff, like, “I pick a fight with my sister,” or “I eat all the ice cream in the freezer.” This list should be long!
Now, look through that column and cross out the things that are damaging to you or to someone else (like fighting with a sister or eating a whole gallon of ice cream).
In the second column, athletes should copy over what’s left on the list: These are the positive and neutral coping mechanisms.
On the middle list, athletes should circle all the ones that they can do while they are at practice or playing their sport. This is the list of things that help athletes manage discomfort while they’re engaged in their sport. It’s going to be a pretty short list, with things like “use positive self-talk,” “listen to music,” or “think about what I’m going to do after this is over.”
Now, you can add a group activity component by allowing athletes to share that third list with each other. As the coach, you may want to make a master list of the best ideas that can be displayed somewhere. Hopefully, athletes will get ideas from each other—or learn more about their teammates! For example, some athletes will use a neutral coping mechanism like sitting quietly by themselves, which could have been perceived as rude without this context around coping.
Learning the difference between discomfort and danger is a process that will benefit both coaches and athletes. Use these activities to get started!