Coaching Association of Canada

Collaborative Approach to Return to Play: A Coach-Athletic Therapist Relationship

By Dom Nicoletta, CAT(C)
Head Certified Athletic Therapist Ottawa Senators Hockey Club

Success at any level of sport relies on the collaboration of many individuals working together toward a common goal. Lack of communication amongst those collaborating usually results in wasted effort, inefficiency and inconsistency. When communication is strong, the collaborative process can pay dividends and help maintain a positive and progressive working environment. One especially important relationship is the one between the coach and athletic therapist. Their roles and responsibilities differ, but when they are committed to supporting each other and are accepting of open lines of communication, both of their positions can be greatly enhanced. The value and importance of the collaboration between a coach and athletic therapist (AT) is no more evident than during the return to play process of the injured athlete.

Early intervention and communication are key

When considering the return to play process for the injured athlete, you have to start at the beginning, the onset of injury. An athletic therapist may have no bigger strength than their ability to recognize and manage athletic injuries. Early recognition and management of the injury, including appropriate removal from play, may be the single most important factor affecting an athlete’s timely return from injury. Athletes are extremely determined by nature and an AT is trained in identifying those athletes that are compensating or struggling in an effort to stay in the game. Their willpower is commendable, but it also increases the risk for more serious injury and extended missed time. Early intervention and communication with the coach can minimize the severity of injury and reduce time lost. The AT’s input can be a valuable tool for a coach when it comes to game-management strategy. Whether the athlete is removed from the game or simply needs some type of intervention, the AT needs to inform the coach immediately, so substitutions or tactical adjustments can be made. If the injury is serious, the coach can rest assured the AT’s skills and emergency care training will help guide the situation and care for the athlete appropriately.

Building a support system

Following injury, the extent and severity of the issue must be determined. This process usually involves appointments with doctors, possibly other sports medicine professionals or diagnostic imaging. The AT is a great liaison between these professionals and the coach. The AT is able to accompany the athlete on these appointments and make sure everyone (the athlete and team officials) understands what has been diagnosed. This means, the coach can focus on the team and does not have to spend time tracking down medical reports. The coach can be confident that medical concerns are being taken care of, the athlete is being supported and a full explanation and diagnosis is communicated as soon as possible.

Setting realistic timelines and using a daily injury report

Once the coach has been briefed on the extent of the injury and the expected lost time, he and team officials can make informed decisions on roster requirements. The coach and the athletic therapist can discuss realistic timelines for rehabilitation and return to practice and games. To assist the coach with the return to play timeframes and expectations the athletic therapist can generate daily injury reports. The daily injury report is a simple but very effective communication tool allowing the coach to monitor the athletes progress daily. In just a few minutes the coach can determine how the athlete is progressing, any issues the athlete may be dealing with and how close the athlete is to returning to activity. Once the athlete has returned to sporting activity, the daily injury report can outline certain limitations or restrictions the athlete will need to maintain during practice. The coach and the athletic therapist can collaborate on how best to integrate and progress the athlete back into activity with the team while minimizing setback.

Managing the injury in-house, ensuring consistency and compliance with the recovery process

Another advantage of this collaboration between coach and athletic therapist is the ability of the team to manage the injury in-house. The constant communication between the coach and AT and their knowledge of the team schedule allow for rehabilitation and coaching sessions to be scheduled appropriately. The ability to properly organize the injured athlete’s day ensures consistency and compliance with the recovery process. Thoughtful scheduling permits the AT ability to make finite daily adjustments in the rehab program and allows the injured athlete to be available for the coach’s meetings. The coach has uninterrupted access to the athlete for tactical sessions, video sessions and practice sessions ensuring the athlete can stay informed and updated on team tactics and strategies. The coach, the AT, and the team benefit by having an individual that is invested and motivated to return to the lineup. Having to rely on outside support for treatment and conditioning, makes managing this type of logistic incredibly challenging.

The partnership between coach and the athletic therapist is a critical relationship in the return to play paradigm of the injured athlete. In fact, having a supportive coach, athletic therapist and peers, fosters a positive environment, which can be extremely motivating during the rehab process, and more importantly, set up the athlete and the team for success.

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