Words by Darren Roberts. Photos by Sven Martin.
I’ve covered injuries before in Dirt, a decent piece on ‘what to do if’. Full of lots of sensible and meaningful advice, as you’d expect coming from me. I wanted this to be more personal though, more from the heart – which I do have (a heart that is) although the athletes may think differently.
Taylor Vernon hitting the deck hard, he rode away from this eventually
If you compete in downhill professionally you will become injured as sure as the sun will rise in the morning. These can be a series of mishaps which disrupt the smooth flow of the season, riding ‘hurt’ soon becomes a fact of racing life for any professional. However you may be unlucky and have a ‘big one’, the season ender and maybe career threatener. It can happen and it does happen. There’s nothing worse as a coach than to hear one of your athletes is seriously injured. It’s a mixed bag of normal emotions that immediately starts to conflict with the ‘coach’ side of your brain as you start running through an immediate ‘to do’ list to get the athlete back.
You feel bad for the athlete, personally and professionally – maybe they’re in a foreign country trying to decipher what’s being told to them in another language or a hospital that looks more like a butchers shop than a place for delicate career saving surgery. They’re scared, and you know they are, but you have to keep your coach head on and start being the problem solver – the island of dependability in a sea of uncertainty. Where are they, what have they done, what’s been done about it, how do we get them back to UK? The list charges through your mind like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It’s great for the athlete to receive all the ‘get well’ messages and flood of ‘healing vibes’ via social media – it does help. However when everyone else moves onto the next race the real battle begins, as its no longer about internet based ‘healing vibes’ but facing the reality of recovery, physiotherapy and the long road to get back racing.
Watch this video for one of Gee Atherton’s bigger crashes…
The three over–arching goals going through my mind are return to function, return to fitness and return to racing. As soon as is physically possible this over–arching plan and what it might look like is immediately discussed with the athlete, no matter how serious the injury. It may seem to the athlete that they are a million miles away from racing when they’re prone on a hospital bed. However talking about how we’re going to get back racing and the steps involved isn’t just blowing smoke up the injured athlete’s arse, it’s a genuine part of breaking down a lengthy process into manageable chunks. It’s not a marathon, it’s 26 x 1 mile efforts. You can have the best surgeon in the world work on an athlete, but if the plan to get them back is anything but clear, concise, specific and well executed, then the surgery may as well have been DIY.
I’ve been through some tough injuries with athletes, and it never gets easier emotionally – you ride the rollercoaster with them, albeit yours is internal as you project nothing but ‘matter–of–fact–optimism’. Watching them return to a start line from injury is like winning the World Champs for me… that’s a selfish statement as it’s not meant to be about me, coaching is about the athlete. You don’t work in this job for the plaudits as there are none and it’s largely thankless, however the struggle against adversity and the will to come back and win is where the real work is done with an athlete and future champions made.
Darren Roberts is the High Performance Manager at Harris & Ross in Manchester and was Head of High Performance at Red Bull UK working with the likes of the Atherton family, Danny MacAskill, MX enduro star David Knight and many, many others. He’s also worked with premiership rugby and football teams and individuals, and presents conferences on performance management of extreme sports athletes right through to more traditional sports. He’s a man with fingers in lots of pies!