Tough Talk: Speaking to parents about an injury

April 16, 2019

By Dr. Erin Hassler, DAT, ATC, MS, LAT, PES

Athletic trainers are healthcare professionals with a broad spectrum of skills and even expertise. We armed with an arsenal of tools that make us the go-to people. Athletic trainers are educators, emergency managers, advocates, and counselors, too.

injured athleteOne of the most important skills that an athletic trainer must possess is good communication. Athletic trainers have to be able to download information from multiple sources, process it and translate it into palatable information. Let’s take for example the weather report. The meteorologist shares that there is an 80 percent chance of thunderstorms during the scheduled football practice. Instead of telling the head football coach that the team cannot go out (with only 5 minutes before the last practice before the playoffs), the AT tastefully reaffirms the inclement weather plan and simultaneously reassures the coach that the sports medicine staff is ready to support the team in the indoor facility.

The athletic trainer must be able to communicate information, at a moment's notice, in a way that can be received and understood, regardless of whether it's good or bad. One of the most difficult times to do this is when sharing injury/illness information with an athlete and parent/guardian. It calls on every characteristic that you could imagine: courage, patience, clarity of thought, empathy, and compassion. Athletic trainers must be able to give hope when there seems to be none.

Here are a few of my tips to successfully communicating:

Remain calm – Maintaining your composure is extremely important. In a time when an athlete, parent/guardian may be in a complete state of panic, it is the role of the AT to be the pulse of the conversation. If you are anxious, everyone else will be, too.

Reaffirm primary stakeholder – Express, in no uncertain terms, that the needs of the athlete are tantamount to all other parties or interests. The athletic trainer must remember that it is imperative to make decisions and healthcare recommendations based on the best interest of the athlete.

Remember to listen – A conversation takes more than one party. An AT with good communication skills knows when to listen and for what. There are often questions about diagnosis, prognosis and what comes next. Athletes and their families may also express emotions that are best met with an “attentive ear”.

Respect others – We each process information based on our own experiences. Be a culturally-competent healthcare professional by showing respect for cultural, environmental and spiritual preferences.

Having “tough talks” are never fun. They can be difficult not only for the receiver but also for the person delivering the information. No matter your individual communication style, you can be successful in how you approach even the most challenging conversations.

This article is part of a "Doc on Deck" series written by Dr. Erin Hassler, who has almost 2 decades of hands-on experience at multiple levels of Sports Medicine and Sports Performance Enhancement. Credentials include but are not limited to: Advisory Board of Athletic Trainers, Board of Certification and National Academy of Sports Medicine Performance Enhancement Specialist.

Twitter: @drhassler

Facebook: @drerinhassler

Instagram: @drerinhassler

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