Playing Hurt

Resilience Respect Well-being


Key Point: “Playing hurt” is a phrase that I grew up with. I learned from playing every sport I could as a kid, that contributing while physically hurt was somehow a badge of honor. That’s the story I created in my head. The football coach had to hide my helmet after getting knocked silly, so I wouldn’t go out on the field the next series of plays. I finished a hockey game with an ankle so swollen I couldn’t get my skate off, and that just added to the legend of stupidity. Yet, in some ways this “suck it up” attitude has been helpful throughout much of my life. Having grit and perseverance are vital attributes. On the other hand, my thinking was often “meat headed” and contributed to overlooking key signals my body/mind was sending. Somehow, I convinced myself that sacrificing my well-being was a noble thing and along with some ego based ignorance, I rationalized that this behavior made me more valuable. I was wrong. Grit and perseverance does not include recklessly playing hurt.

Recently, I was a passenger in a serious car accident with the air bag exploding into my noggin. A few days after the accident, I was diagnosed as having a concussion. It wasn’t immediately evident, but I knew I didn’t feel right. Instead of going on an extended business trip to the other side of the country, I went to the doctor. My “normal” reaction would have been to muscle through the symptoms and continue under the misguided view that I would let somebody down if chose to look after myself first. And ironically, the person I would have really let down if I hadn’t been diagnosed is me.

The decision to rest instead of travel may be ridiculously obvious to you, but I know I’m not alone in the idea that “playing hurt” is always the right thing. I’m not suggesting that my enlightened behavior now has me whining and hitting the couch with any little “bruise.” However, advanced performance psychologists/coaches are stressing that athletes become much more focused on playing healthy and minimizing the idea of playing hurt. It is more about the long game than a shortsighted view. Of course, the application of this principle is situational. There are likely times (hopefully very few) when “playing hurt” may be best for all.

Character Moves:

  1. Focus more on what you’re doing to “play healthy.” This includes fully integrating every healthy part of your life into your work and vice versa. You will be more valuable to your team (and loved ones of course) if you stay healthy in every way (physical, emotional, spiritual, etc). Don’t be a martyr.
  1. As a leader, how are you setting an example? Do you still simply (perhaps foolishly) use time and attendance as a primary and meaningful marker of success? (For example, 16 hour work days, six days/week, minimum holidays)? How much do you commit to playing healthy versus playing hurt?

Winning healthy in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: My football coaches had one question if we ever needed to see a trainer: “Are you injured or are you hurt?” See the difference? The understanding is that injury could justify taking plays off, but “everyone” was playing “hurt,” so you better play hurt too… Truthfully, I always admired and adhered to this (I’d be flat out telling a lie if I said I still don’t). If the guy next to me was “hurt” too, it’s my duty to play through pain also for the betterment of all… True story: 10+ years later, I tweaked my back while deadlifting on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, I told myself to “suck it up,” and “fix my form,” but I wound up doing the same thing, even worse… Tonight, I had to cut my routine short at the gym and bought some Tylenol on the way home because I’m not as invincible as I think I am. I’m by no means injured, but I bet I could have been more successful and effective today if I had been less stubborn yesterday… I plan on being back to normal by tomorrow, but I’ll edge on the side of caution, I don’t need to spend my weekend at a chiropractor.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis