Friday, September 11, 2015

Wilshere & Welbeck & the Way Back

The recent announcement of Arsenal forward Danny Welbeck’s knee surgery was a potent incendiary device. It combined two highly flammable elements—the club’s (lack of) transfer activity and its injury record—and sparked them with a bit of awkward and untimely public relations. The result was a social media firestorm.

It’s sadly not the first time an injury development has provoked criticism, in addition to amateurish medical diagnosis. The response usually focuses on physical factors, such as the nature of the injury, the scope of the treatment, or the typical recovery period, as if all Arsenal have to do is repair a broken machine.

Lost in all this is the mental condition of the individual affected, even though the psychological aspect is just as important as physical recovery. That’s the conclusion of compelling research on injury and rehabilitation among athletes.

Injury as routine

For years, supporters and media used Arsenal’s injury record as cudgel with which to attack manager Arsène Wenger. He shouldn't insist, some said, on a style of play that exposes players to so much physical risk; he should diversify his team away from so many small, slight players, others claimed; he should relax his stubborn training methods, still others argued; he should stop trying to control all aspects of the club, some proclaimed, especially medical interventions.

All these arguments ignore the research. Many studies have indicated that injuries are an unavoidable element of athletic performance. As Charles Brown notes in “Injuries: The Psychology of Recovery and Rehab,” “serious athletes come in two varieties: those who have been injured, and those who have not been injured yet” (The Sport Psych Handbook, 2013).

Everyone associated with an athletic endeavor, including managers, coaches, athletes themselves, and supporters, should therefore prepare for the reality of injury. After all, the vast majority of elite footballers sustain a performance-limiting injury at least once a season. (See Casper Devantier, “Psychological Predictors of Injury among Professional Soccer Players” in Sport Science Review.)

Fortunately, professional players can deal with this eventuality better than amateur players or fans can. Elite athletes have access to state-of-the-art facilities, breakthrough treatments, and attentive medical and rehab staffs. They’re also adept with the psychological techniques that enable peak performance, which, it so happens, are identical to those needed for effective injury recovery.

As I described a year ago in in “Mesut Özil Plays for Arsenal, and You Do Not,” the specific psychological tools elite athletes call upon are goal-setting, imagery, relaxation training, and positive self-talk. Also important is strong social support, which helps injured players stay motivated and confident. This points to another benefit of team camaraderie.

Warning signs

We can sense the psychological risks of injury in the comments of Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta, who spent more than six months sidelined with calf and ankle problems: “When players go outside for a training session, you feel wasted. They come back, they travel, they have different times to you and you don’t spend much time with them. Personally, I don’t feel productive.”

These types of feelings, while understandable at a human level, can be problematic for athletes. That’s because athletes can become more vulnerable to injury if they exhibit certain psychological traits. In Devantier’s study of Danish professional footballers, poor ability to cope with adversity and the existence of previous injuries both bore a strong correlation to the duration of injuries.

This makes sense. If a player can’t handle adversity or has suffered a prior injury, his anxiety could increase, affecting his ability to stay positive and calm and avoid long injury layoffs.

The real problem for Arsenal is that other research has identified an element of personality in the vulnerability to injury. Brown has observed that "the risk of injury increases if the athlete experiences competitive trait anxiety (routinely feels greater anxiety or tension in performance situations) or anger and aggression during competition."


Anger and aggression during competition. Remind you of anyone?

Hence a legitimate concern about midfielder Jack Wilshere. He's often the first into the fray, the scrappy English bulldog.

The question is, how does Wilshere separate this aggression from his playing style? He shouldn't heed advice to adjust his style of play out of fear of re-injury, which could actually create the conditions for another injury. What's important is that Wilshere remain in control of his physical and emotional conduct.

He should also rely on his teammates, the strength and conditioning coaches, the physios, the management team, and others. The support of them all is crucial; that's especially the case for Welbeck, who doesn't have the longstanding ties to the club Wilshere enjoys.

Perhaps Wenger knows how important togetherness and support are for his injured charges. It could explain why he's so complimentary of injured players in public and why he stayed behind Abou Diaby through his many long absences. That support was undoubtedly about Diaby, but it might have also been a message to the other members of the team that the club would stand by them if/when they were injured, too.

This approach to player injuries also explains the quick response to England manager Roy Hodgson's statement about the length of Welbeck's absence. Soon after Hodgson said that Welbeck would be out at least six months, Arsenal provided details of Welbeck's cartilage problem to Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph, stressing that the club prognosis still pointed to a late December return.

Understood in light of the psychological research, Arsenal's purposeful public relations recovery was designed to encourage the player, keep him close psychologically to the first team, and reassure fans that the club is taking a professional, thoughtful, and holistic approach to the inevitable injuries.

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