No Pain, No Gain: Athletic Pressure to Play Through Pain

Let’s talk about sports. As a student of Movement Science with a special interest in the physiology of physical activity, I have long been interested in how the body adapts to repeated bouts of exercise and what we can learn about the puzzle of human movement through analyzing these efforts.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the body of an athlete.  Like many of you, I have been watching the Olympics where training, genetics, and talent amalgamate for a peak performance.  Last Thursday, minutes before he was due to skate his short program, Evgeni Plushenko withdrew from the competition because he was in extreme spinal pain from a prior injury that required numerous back surgeries.  Despite a breath-taking performance in the team competition that helped his country win the gold medal, he received widespread criticism for not competing through the pain from long-time opponents, Russian parliament members, Russian lawmakers, and sports correspondents, notwithstanding that he had competed in pain only days prior. One could argue for or against Plushenko’s decision to not withdraw sooner, but what I want to focus on is the normalization of playing through pain and injury in sports culture.

We know that participating in rigorous sports with extreme pain and injury at the elite level can leave an athlete with severe chronic injury, unremitting pain, and potential damage to the body. Likewise, performance itself is greatly hampered.  Physiologists have studied how pain impacts performance by analyzing naturally occurring pain through accelerating the output of peak power and through administering a pain inducing drug into the muscle while monitoring performance on a cycle ergometer. Through both of these processes what they have found is that pain during exercise leads to faster fatigue at the same level of intensity.  Those that have been diagnosed with diseases, such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, or lupus, know that after exercise there is the potential for prolonged malaise even if the benefits far outweigh this initial feeling.  However, the expectations for professional athletes to play through bodily pain and discomfort remains high and resigning to do so leaves them vulnerable to criticism of their dedication to their sport from fans, media, and coaches.

At the top of the list for potential injury of its players is the sport of American football.  Extolled for its “hard hits”, the debate has been raging as to what should be done to prevent injury especially in the wake of the link between chronic traumatic encephalopathy and multiple concussions.  Authors Eric Anderson and Edward M. Kian, in the journal Men and Masculinities (2012), published an article entitled “Examining Media Contestation of Masculinity and Head Trauma in the National Football League” where they argue that men are urged to sacrifice their body for the sake of the game pointing to phrases like “man up”, “no pain, no gain”, and “pain is temporary, pride is forever” and  television shows, such as “The top 10 gutsiest performances” where players are featured for performing through serious injuries including broken bones, separated shoulders, and severe headaches.  They contend that promptly returning to the game or continuing to play without intermission following an injury is deemed heroic; players are commended for their commitment and judged victorious.

An interesting article entitled “Playing Through Pain and Injury: Psychosocial Considerations” (2013) authored by Robert Weinberg, Daniel Vernau, and Thelma Horn examined why athletes play through injury and pain.  They look at two hypothesizes. First, they looked into if greater athletic identity lends itself to a propensity to play while injured.  Second, they analyzed whether gender plays a role, specifically if males are more likely to play through pain.  What they found was that athletes that strongly identified themselves as such had a much greater likelihood to play while injured than those that did not feel as strongly that their self-identification is wrapped up in athleticism.  Furthermore, this correlation was across the board and gender was not as strongly correlated as athletic identity.  Men and women equally were willing to play through pain if they identified themselves as an athlete first.  What was remarkable about their study is that it was conducted using participants who were recreational athletes and not elite competitors.  They conclude that playing through pain and injury is so commonplace in sports culture that it just doesn’t permeate actions at the elite level but even affects those in the intramural arena.  Weinberg, Vernau, and Horn explain that a key to understanding this behavior is the extensively researched concept of the sport ethic.  (For more on this topic, see the writings of Howard L Nixon.)  The sport ethic not only involves mere participation when hurt and injured but necessitates doing so without displaying any negative effects of the injury.   The idea of the sport ethic is not just a mind-set of an athlete but those athletes that display this tenet are more likely to be accepted by their coaches and applauded by the media.

Returning to Plushenko, moments after explaining to the judges that he could not compete due to pain, he was interviewed by the media.  When asked what he wanted to say to his fans, he replied; “I am sorry. I am not a robot.”  His words made me think about the heroes and villains in sports culture.  What is it about our society that is intrigued about the rise and fall of grace of athletes?  Thomas S. Mueller and John C. Sutherland’s thought-provoking article “Heroes and Villains: Increasing Fan Involvement in Pursuit of ‘The Elusive Fan’” discuss the way conflict is played out in sports.  They assert that the classic battle of good versus evil and weak versus strong is relayed in sports spectatorship.  Tracing through Greek heroes and gods, they contend that modern athletes are defined as role models and heroes accentuating the drama, rivalries, deification, and falls from grace.  In this sense, it becomes easier to praise those that fight through pain in a “no guts, no glory” fashion and ignore and even criticize those that realize that their health is in jeopardy if they “soldier on.”  However, as Anderson and Kian pointed out in their example of Green Bay Packer’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the tides may be changing.  Rodgers withdrew from an important game at the urging of his fellow player, Donald Driver, because of a serious head injury.  Driver was later commended for placing his concern for his teammate and friend’s health above winning the game.  It leads one to wonder if an action like that can be deemed truly heroic.

Evgeni Plushenko’s 2014 Sochi Olympic performance for the team competition:

Read the full articles:

In his own words:


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