Torn ligaments, broken bones, muscle strains: U of T research finds athletes gain from pain

Photo of Varsity Blues team
The findings could help coaches work with athletes to help them develop self-awareness, foster good training partnerships and psychologically prepare them for competition (photo by Martin Bazyl)

Pain not only helps athletes build self-awareness and improve their skills, but dealing with injuries also helps athletes create bonds with training partners and find a strong support system. 

Kristina Smith, a graduate student in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, researched the role of pain in sports by studying mixed martial arts (MMA), a hyper-explosive combat sport that involves striking and grappling.

Her findings could help athletes and coaches in all sports – from hockey to marathons.

“Pain is more than a physiological experience – it’s also a social and cultural phenomenon,” says Smith, who recently completed her master’s degree at the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. 

“In everyday life we usually try to avoid or manage pain. But most athletes enter into a relationship with it to understand themselves and advance their skills.”

Mixed martial arts provided a unique context for studying pain – competitors inflict as much damage as possible using Muay Thai, sambo, boxing, kick boxing and jiu jitsu.  

Smith studied seven athletes over four months through interviews, observation, video diaries and recordings of training sessions and fights.

She also trained with the fighters to experience pain first-hand.

“At first I was really intimidated, but I got the hang of it and became confident in my training. I went through my own injuries, and it really helped me to understand what the fighters were going through.”

So, how can coaches and athletes put these findings into practice? 

Smith advises taking a broader look at reactions to pain and recommends using open communication to develop athletes’ self-awareness, help them foster trusting training partnerships and psychologically prepare them for competition. 

“The coach at my gym would constantly talk about pain. He would model this behavior and make it okay for athletes to talk about it too. He turned it into a learning experience and this helped the athletes to grow personally and as a group,” she says.

Assistant Professor Katherine Tamminen, whose research focuses on sport psychology, supervised Smith’s research. Professor Michael Atkinson is Smith’s current PhD supervisor. 

“Pain is very relational, and when one individual experiences it, it is also felt among teammates and spectators,” Atkinson says. “When others see athletes experience pain, they can relate to it at a deep level, and it can teach them how to manage it themselves.”

In the future, Smith plans to study pain in palliative care settings. 

“We’re really just learning about people’s responses to, and uses of pain, as well as how pain is culturally constructed. People encounter pain in a full spectrum of ways. I hope to use my previous and future research to reveal more about the complex nature of pain.”  

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