This scenario happens on playing fields every day, all over the country: The coach notices there’s something wrong with his star player. Maybe he’s limping; maybe she’s pulling her arm. And the performance is being affected too – throws are off their mark; running time has slowed. The coach asks, “Everything okay? You look like you’re in pain.” And the player shrugs it off. “I’m fine, coach. Put me back in, coach. I’m the only one who can win this game for us.”
It happened last week in the Redskins/Seahawks game. After insisting he was “hurt, but not injured,” RG3 collapsed while trying to field an errant snap. He had surgery a few days later on his previously repaired ACL. While there’s been a lot of discussion about whether Mike Shanahan made the right call -- believing his rookie quarterback and keeping him in the game when all evidence suggested he was too hurt to perform -- there’s been little-to-no discussion about the warrior culture that led an extremely talented young man to put his own future at risk rather than hand the ball to his very capable back-up. Simply put, this response was drilled into RG3 at a very young age: Only wimps cry about the pain.
Shortly after children leave toddlerhood behind, parents are told to ignore their cries on the playground. “He’s not hurt,” we’re told after our three-year-old falls face first off a swing. “Do you want your kid to become a cry baby?” So we tell them to “shake it off” or that they’re “not really hurt.” When they fall but don’t cry, we praise them for being tough. Soon, our children learn they can get attention from sustaining bumps and bruises without tears. If they’re really hurt, they best keep it to themselves.
It gets worse when our children start to play organized sports. Even though sports are beneficial for children of every ability, those who stand out are the ones who are rewarded. Children who run slowly, whose throws are erratic, and who – heaven forbid – cry when they’re hit in the face with a soccer ball – are marginalized and often quit before their efforts can result in improvement. And the better kids, seeing this, learn the lesson: Don’t show weakness. And don’t ever admit you’re in pain.
My son started playing organized sports in kindergarten. In the second grade, he took a soccer ball to the stomach. Even with his face buried in my stomach so his teammates wouldn’t see his tears, he insisted to his coach that he was just fine to go back out and play.
Later, he would forsake all other sports for baseball, a sport unique in that too much practice and too many games can be detrimental to players, especially younger ones. There was one kid, Jeffrey, who was a superstar all throughout middle school. Whenever he pitched against our team, we knew we’d lose. Yet at the same time, we knew Jeffrey was being overused and his days as a baseball superstar were probably numbered. Last I heard, arm injuries kept him from doing anything more than designated hitting.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of, “It’s just one game; how much can it hurt him.” With competition for playing time so fierce – even at the middle school age – a kid’s fortunes seem to rise and fall with every game. Consciously or subconsciously, the child gets the message to swallow his pain and go out there and play. When he was 12, my son walked around with an arm that was broken in two places for almost a week – and played half a baseball game before the pain got too bad. We joke now about how he hit a grand slam with that arm, but the truth is, he never should have been in the game to begin with.
My son was lucky enough to have coaches in middle school and high school who kept pitch counts and stressed arm health. Other than that broken arm, he never complained of pain – insisting, at my questioning, that there was a difference between being “sore” and being “hurt” – shades of RG3’s justification of hurt versus injured. Even so, he told me that every kid on his high school baseball team was playing with a hurt arm. Why don’t they tell the coach? I asked. Because then the coach wouldn’t let them play.
Does this type of attitude persist in female sports, or are women smarter about listening to the pain messages their bodies send? I tend to think not. Women are just as competitive as men, and the “mommy wars” have broadened to the very day of birth. Since the days of Lamaze, women are encouraged to forgo pain medication in order to have a “natural” birth. If you give in and ask for medication, you’re a failure.
Even with the explosion in prescription pain medication abuse, health experts say that doctors actually underprescribe pain medication and underestimate their patients’ levels of pain. Some of that may be fear of being tricked by an addict, but it’s an attitude that persists throughout society – suck it up. It doesn’t really hurt that bad.
Maybe this is a problem unique to playing fields and delivery rooms. After all, it’s hard to see how society is impacted because one boy doesn’t go on to play college baseball; one girl has to quit basketball. But I think it has a broader impact. By teaching children to ignore pain, we teach them to distrust their feelings and their bodies. They swallow pain; they swallow anger. But in the end, it always comes out. And sometimes the impact is a lot greater than a loss in a play-off game.