Pain and Injury Case Study

The excerpt below is taken from a larger case study which considered the influence socioeconomic status may have on pain and injury discourses.

The athlete was a retired elite gymnast who reflected on her experiences with a number of coaches in a variety of settings.  We join the conversation at the point she is discussing an education scholarship she earned and the impact an injury had on this in relation to her family’s low socioeconomic status.

Alongside the empowerment Sienna’s cultural capital afforded her she was also marginalised through her lack of economic capital.  Sienna realised that whilst being dependant on funding from outside agencies ‘your life isn’t your own, almost like these people think they own you ‘cos they have given you things’.  On a number of occasions throughout her career Sienna was put under pressure to perform whilst injured as a form of payment for scholarships or bursaries, in one such incident the private school threatened to withdraw her scholarship if she didn’t compete in a competition for them and delay surgery.  Roderick (2006) found that within professional football, players were often discredited as being of no use to the club if injured, echoing the attitudes of the fee paying school who viewed Sienna as a commodity (Wacquant, 1995).  Sienna describes her parents feeling trapped as they were dependant on funding from both the school and also the governing body who were paying for the surgery.  One organisation wanted the surgery delayed whilst the other expected it to go ahead as soon as practicable with Sienna and her family having to make the decision which form of funding was more important.  Power is both relational and negotiated (Foucault, 1979), seen in this light each individual holds some power and possesses the agency to enable change.  For Sienna, her relationship with her English Institute of Sport physiotherapist enabled her to resist the hegemonic attitudes of the bourgeois showing ‘great strength of character’ (Safai, 2003) – not only for standing up to the establishment but also for resisting the ideologies of the ‘sports ethic’ (Hughes & Coakley, 1991):

[the physiotherapist] put it to me that it wasn’t about anyone else but me.  If I took everything out the equation but what was right for me at that time what would I do?  So she um, well she made it so easy for me to make the decision and I felt really good about it.  So we told the school to stuff it and I had my surgery and kept my place on the GB squad.

The normalisation of pain and injury was prevalent throughout the interview with Sienna highlighting the gymnastics subculture of ‘man up or get out’ when faced with pain and injury.  She describes her first experiences of dealing with pain through stretching as a young child as ‘why am I being forced to do this? This isn’t fun, this hurts’.  Malcolm (2006) suggests children do not enter the sporting arena fully prepared to accept pain as part of the process but that they become socialised to internalise the sports ethic and the idea that pain and injury are synonymous with their sport.  This is evidenced through Sienna’s statement that ‘over time you get used to it and toughen up’.  Playing through pain and injury is an example of positive deviance (Hughes & Coakley, 1991), through socialisation into the sports ethic athletes learn to normalise pain and accept it as part of the culture of risk (Nixon, 1992).  This term was originally used as ‘a way for men to validate their masculinity and athletic identities’ (Young, White & McTeer, 1994).  It has been acknowledged that women also accept pain and injury as a normal part of sports socialisation.  These normative values begin to shape an athletes sporting habitus.  Sienna describes the process of getting rips through repeated bars practice and acknowledges they are a normal part of the sport stating:

The other thing is rips from bars where your hands um, well you just rip the skin off your hands and it bleeds …  That’s not nice, especially when you are little, but having rips is part of being a gymnast.

The normalisation and expectation to train with sore hands is seen as part of the daily workout:

[You say] ‘oh look I’ve ripped’ [the coach says] ‘ok next go, chalk up’.  It’s just not something you stop for … The worst is a rip on a rip, when it just gets deeper and you end up with blood all over your handguards and on the bar.

Socialisation into the gymnastics sports net develops primary social bonds with non-familial others, such as the coach, leading to people outside the sports net having less influence on the development of structural constraints. Sienna describes an incident where she sustained an avulsion fracture in her foot yet did not seek medical treatment until she had completed her session.  When asked why she continued to train she responded ‘Well yeah, of course! You just do what you are told’ and when asked if her parents intervened she replied there was no point as if you didn’t comply with the coaches wishes they would ‘make your life miserable’.  It can be seen that as the coach athlete figuration strengthens, overconformity is unconditionally accepted often resulting in a code of silence (Gervis & Dunn, 2004).  Young children who participate in early specialisation sports are considered especially vulnerable to abusive coaching practices as they often spend more time in the care of non-familial others than with their own parents (David, 2005).

Acceptance of playing through injury is also highlighted throughout the interview.  On one occasion Sienna describes feeling traumatised that she was asked to train through significant pain whilst waiting for surgery but admits she did it as it was expected of her. However, she also talks about pushing herself to train whilst injured as she felt she needed to compete as she had been out from competition for a while, she used the phrase ‘push through’ to emphasise it was a struggle but she believed it would be worth it, tying in with the idea of the sports ethic where athletes push themselves to the limit, make sacrifices for the game and accept risk unconditionally (Hughes & Coakley, 1991).  Overconformity was also highlighted through the prevalent use of pain relieving drugs with Sienna confirming ‘it was a regular thing, um, to the point where I think I am actually immune to Ibuprofen and Paracetamol now I have taken it that much [giggles]’.  Sienna rationalises the regular consumption of pain relieving drugs as ‘you know you are going to be in pain but you know you have got to do it anyway, there’s that expectation of yourself and from your coaches’, reinforcing the ideology of a win at all costs attitude (Hughes & Coakley, 1991).  Fear of rejection and stigmatisation were also cited as a reason for drug use as:

There is always something hurting and if you want to keep your squad place and have a chance at being selected for internationals you can’t be complaining about things hurting.  No one wants to hear it and it makes you look weak.  So you do what you need to do.

Stigmatisation is often used as a tool to eliminate unwanted behaviours that do not conform to the sports ideology (Roderick, Waddington & Parker, 2000).

Sienna’s narrative is imbued with interdependent power relations constructed through societal figurations that have enabled both empowerment and marginalisation.  Sienna’s familial and sporting habitus’ have both impacted on her decisions throughout her childhood.  The choice to withdraw from the fee paying school was the result of a negative social ‘fit’ alongside intimidation to perform whilst injured, this decision enabled Sienna to adopt some agency over her life.  Despite her young age socialisation into the sports subculture was synonymous with pain and injury discourses from very early on, creating a sporting habitus engendered with fear, coercion and guilt.  Sienna highlights her perceptions of the subculture as ‘you get injuries in any sport but [I would change] mostly how it’s dealt with [in gymnastics] and the attitude between the coach and the um gymnast really’, adding ‘you don’t really get too much of a say in your own career’.  The theme of dominance was emphasised throughout the narrative but especially in respect to the coach/athlete relationship in the formative years with suggestions Sienna was lying about injuries to avoid aspects of training she didn’t like.  This pattern continued throughout her career progressing from ‘lying’ to suggesting ‘you are seen as having a low pain threshold and are told just deal with it’.  Sienna’s narrative suggests the gymnastics subculture has had a negative impact on both her physical and emotional wellbeing through submission to the culture of risk and internalisation of the sports ethic.



David, P. (2005). Human rights in youth sport a critical review of children’s rights in        competitive sports.  New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, A. Sheridan (trans.). London: Penguin.

Hughes, R., & Coakley, J. (1991). Positive deviance among athletes: The                        implications of overconformity to the sport ethic. Sociology of Sport Journal, 8, 307-325.

Nixon, H. (1992). A social network analysis of influences on athletes to play with pain and injuries. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 16, 127–35.

Roderick, M. (2006). Adding insult to injury: workplace injury in English professional football. Sociology of Health and Illness, 28, 76-97.

Roderick, M., Waddington, I., & Parker, G. (2000). Playing hurt – managing injuries in     English professional football. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 35, 165-180.

Safai, P. (2003). Healing the body in the ‘Culture of risk’: Examining the negotiation of the treatment between sports medicine clinicians and injured athletes in Canadian intercollegiate sport. Sociology of Sport Journal, 20, 127-146.

Wacquant, L. (1995). Pugs at work: Bodily capital and bodily labour among professional boxers. Body and Society, 1, 65-93.

Young, K., White, P., & McTeer, W. (1994). Body talk: Male athletes reflect on sport, injury and pain. Sociology of Sport Journal, 11, 175-194.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s