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Gold or bust? - Athletes, injuries and how to manage the risk

The year 2022 was a massive year for elite athletes following the world’s emergence from the pandemic and the rescheduling of postponed sporting events. 

Major competitions included the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, Commonwealth Games and world cups in football, rugby league, rugby 7s, women’s rugby union, women’s basketball, the women’s ODI and men’s T20 world cups in cricket. It's also seen world championships in aquatics, athletics, cycling and rowing among other elite sporting events.  

The cyclic nature of world championship type events, in some instances every four years, means 2022 has been the culmination of many years of hard work and for some, the pinnacle of their sporting career. The margin between a gold medal and heartache can be agonisingly small. Understandably this will result in athletes pushing themselves to the limit in competition and training. 

Devastating effects of sporting injuries

Injuries are part and parcel of sport and enduring pain is part of the fabric of an elite athlete. No competitor ever wants to be side-lined and especially not for a major world event. We've seen first-hand in our elite athlete clients the devastation that can be caused by career affecting injuries

A serious injury may not only require long term treatment and care, but will also significantly impact on earnings, sponsorship and other opportunities as well as psychological wellbeing.

Managing the risk of sporting injury

Many sporting injuries are unavoidable but risks can be managed with adequate risk assessments, safer conditions, equipment and appropriate diagnosis and treatment at an early stage.     

Most common career ending injuries

There will be some variance from sport to sport but a study of retired Great British Olympians reported the main types of injury responsible for early retirement were: 

Ligament injury  
Intervertebral disc prolapse
Cartilage tears  
Fracture and/ or dislocation  

The main locations of injuries responsible for retirement from sport were:

Lumbar spine  
Lower leg  

Injuries such as sprains, strains or grade 1 tears can resolve within weeks with appropriate treatment. Conversely, grade 3 tears or complete ruptures can lead to surgery and result in many months to a year or longer, on the side-line.  

Common injuries that are more susceptible to mismanagement and longer term problems include; knee injuries such as tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), meniscus; torn hip labrum; shoulder rotator cuff tears, stress fractures and concussion. In the worst case scenario, sporting careers can be cut short if these types of injuries are not properly diagnosed and treated.      

How to reduce the chance of serious injury? 

Advice around avoiding injury is largely common sense, however, as I know first-hand as a competitor in sport at an international level, this is easier said than done when the competitive juices are flowing and the will to win is high.  


The following should be adopted where possible 

  • Always ensure good warm up, cool down and recovery practices.
  • Use appropriate techniques, equipment, training surfaces and conditions.
  • Manage load, conditioning and avoid overtraining.
  • Minimise higher risk/impact activities in training and/or structure into sessions when the athlete is most alert and focussed.

Post Injury 

Sadly, once an injury has been sustained there is usually no silver bullet fix when it comes to recovery and it is understandable that athletes may want to take risks in the pursuit of gold. Athletes nevertheless should:

  •  Seek early medical advice, ask questions and be fully informed of the risks of training or competing when injured.
  • Not be afraid to request diagnostic imaging, further investigations or seek a second opinion.
  • Give full and detailed information to all treatment providers. If multiple, don’t assume they will speak to each other or review notes.
  • Think bigger picture. Look ahead to upcoming events, prioritise and weigh up the short term and long term risks.
  • Keep an open dialogue with treatment providers during the course of rehabilitation and report back, particularly when progress is not going to plan. 
  • Consider measures to protect the injury; strapping, wearing protective gear etc.
  • Be mindful that protecting an injury can lead to overcompensation in other areas, increasing the risk of further or new injuries.  
  • Be careful with the use of pain relief as it can mask pain and further damage. Listen to your body.
  • Modify training schedule to avoid aggravating activities. Consider using time to focus on mental preparation, analysis and other aspects of performance.
  • Manage load and returns and resist temptation to push too hard too soon.
  • Be honest with coaches, medical providers and most importantly yourself. Underplaying or hiding injuries can lead to incorrect diagnosis, mismanagement and long term problems. 

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell’s expertise in supporting athletes who have sustained an injury that could have been avoided at our dedicated sports injuries section.