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What Student-Athletes Should Do About Major Injuries

A major injury can be a big setback regarding health, insurance, and scholarships. Here's what student-athletes should know if they get seriously hurt.

For prospective student-athletes, the road to college is paved with a lot of early mornings and late nights spent practicing and perfecting their sport. And for good reason: NCAA Division I and II schools provide more than $2.9 billion in athletics scholarships annually to more than 150,000 student-athletes, potentially paving the way to a dream school. Once these students arrive at school, the work only gets more intense—which is all the more reason athletes who suffer major injuries often fear the worst. “Staying healthy is obviously the overall goal for any student-athlete,” says Jared White, head athletic trainer with IMG Academy, a boarding school geared toward student-athletes. When an injury occurs, however, students should keep a few things top of mind.

There’s more to sports than playing on the field

Since most athletic scholarships are offered for one year at a time and are renewed annually, an injury that puts a student-athlete on the sidelines for one season has the potential to impact whether a scholarship is extended to them next year. Of course, an injury doesn’t always mean a lost scholarship. And sometimes an injury can be an opportunity for an athlete to demonstrate their value off the field. In some instances, a student with injuries that can be healed may be redshirted or kept out of the game for the school year in order to develop their skills. During this time, a coach may have the student contribute to the team from the sideline. In other words, “injuries don’t have to deter athletes from being valuable to their team,” White says. “The value might just look a bit different.”  For example, at IMG, White says the coaching staff uses physical healing time to collaborate with mental conditioning coaches for mindset and vision training, nutritionists for food choices that can decrease inflammation and build muscle strength, and conditioning coaches to work parts of the body not impacted by the injury.  “From sport psychologists to dieticians and strength coaches, most communities have professionals who would love to be part of a high-performing athlete’s team,” he says. “The primary factor in constructively managing the injury process is the athlete’s desire to improve all the areas of their performance that they can, even if an injury keeps them from doing what they want.”

Each student-athlete should check with the athletic department at their college to understand how an injury could impact their specific scholarship. For example, the policy at Rollins College in Orlando, Florida, for athletic scholarships stipulates that financial aid based in any degree on athletic ability may not be reduced, canceled, or increased because an injury prevents the student-athlete from participating. For most institutions, whether a scholarship is renewed will be at the discretion of the head coach. “Coaches have wide discretion and take varied approaches to scholarship renewal,” says Tom Walsh, athletic counselor at Popp & Associates, a college admission counseling company. “While it can look bad and generate some short-term negative public relations, a coach can opt to move away from an injured player.” If a student does lose their scholarship, it’s not uncommon for them to leave the college altogether. This is a major reason why student-athletes need to try to make the best match with a college beyond the athletic realm, Walsh says.  

Related: 4 College Search Tips for Student-Athletes

Get the lowdown on health care

It’s important for injured student-athletes to understand how their health care costs will be covered. According to Carlitta M. Moore, EdD, an assistant professor with the Master of Athletic Training Program at Arkansas State University—and a licensed and certified athletic trainer—some students may find themselves on the hook for medical bills, though there is often secondary athletic insurance paid for by the school that the student is automatically opted into. It’s crucial for athletes to talk to their institution’s athletic department to get information before the season begins. While the NCAA does offer a list of insurance resources for student-athletes on their site, the extent to which a student-athlete’s health care is covered will vary. At the Division I level, there is usually no responsibility left to the athlete, Moore says.

In the instances where a student-athlete may incur costs, it’s important for them to understand exactly what is covered, as well as how injuries are covered by their particular health care plan. For example, some insurance policies only work in certain areas and may consider claim costs to be out-of-network because the athlete did not go to the emergency room first or return home for services, Moore says. Bottom line: As a student-athlete, it’s essential to understand what’s covered for health care under your scholarship and what you’ll be responsible for on your own, depending on the extent of your injury and how and where it occurred. After that, check with your private health insurance company, especially to understand the right approach for young adults and for the specifics of your policy. 

Related: All About Health Insurance for Student-Athletes

Staying off the field doesn’t mean staying off your game

Student-athletes who become injured may find themselves feeling lost about where to go next, especially if their injury requires them to stay off the playing field for an entire season or longer. “Injured athletes often feel like they’re outsiders—and, because they cannot contribute the way they have traditionally, that they have regressed,” White says. While some frustration and sadness are normal when student-athletes get injured, it’s important to keep an eye out for feelings of depression or sadness that don’t go away. Since an athlete is usually lucky enough to be surrounded by a team of people—coaches, teammates, team physicians, and trainers—it’s essential for everyone to work together to suggest when further help like counseling might be necessary. Staying open and honest with a support network through regular check-ins will be important for a student-athlete during the healing process. For example, the NCAA recommends coaches “give the student-athlete permission to seek treatment” and share the mental health resources that are available in order to destigmatize treatment. When dealing with injuries, it can also help to stay informed about recovery time as well as other factors that could impact healing. “The athletic trainer has to not only treat the injury but [also] rebuild confidence in the athlete,” says White. “They must help them process that their injured body part may not be back to 100% normal, but it will return to a point that will allow the athlete to perform the sport they love or have a decent quality of life.”

Related: How to Make Your Semester More Mindful

A major injury as a student-athlete can be a major setback for their college sports and academic career. Injuries take a toll on students financially, mentally, and physically—so it’s important that you get the information and care you need for recovery and emotional support. Use this advice, but also don’t be afraid to reach out and use the resources at your disposal on your college campus. Good luck and heal well!

For more student-athlete advice, check out our College Athletics section.

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