Having been the club doctor at AFC Bournemouth since 2015, Craig Roberts knows the medical room at Vitality Stadium like no other.
With long and short-term injuries part and parcel of the sport, he’s constantly there to aid the players’ road to recovery and oversee the rehab necessary to get them back out on the pitch.
However, while the primary focus is the physical recovery of an individual, Roberts and his team also have somewhat of a pastoral role, with it not uncommon for players to experience mental struggles while stuck in the treatment room and unable to feature on the pitch.
During Men’s Health Week, afcb.co.uk spoke with Roberts, who shed light on what players go through mentally while recovering from injury and how strong relationships off the pitch are as crucial to the process.
“The injury is the physical side of things, but the mental side is probably even more important,” he began.
“Particularly for a long-term injury, the mental strength to get through that is quite tough and the guys go through so many different stages from early denial to slow acceptance then perhaps frustration, so it’s a lot.
“For us, we’re very much a team, so we always work together. We appreciate that players will go through that and they’ll have good days and bad days, and good weeks and bad weeks.
“For us, we’re always planning their rehab and trying to get the most out of every day, but there are some days that we just need to say ‘you know what, we were planning to do a lot today but we’re going to back off a little and focus on other things’. Mental support is very important.”
The mental health of a player is something that the club monitor throughout an individual’s road to recovery, with regular feedback and conversations had between the two parties.
Roberts went on to explain how the process helps understand the mental state of a player from the diagnosis right through to their return to action.
“We do a lot of questionnaires right through their rehab and we’re looking at their mental health and their mental state, and ultimately their confidence to return to play.
“Those are all aspects that we look to track right through our rehab process to make sure that their confidence, not just from an injury perspective, is there to get back on the pitch.
“After a long-term injury, it’s one thing to return to fitness but returning to form is a completely different thing.
“Sometimes the players take months of playing before they can get back to a decent level and, in some cases, it might even be years before they get back to how they were before they got injured.
“We often talk about that in the rehab process and explain to the players the process and that it will take time. A return to play and a return to performance are two different things.”
While Roberts and his team might be there to aid the physical recovery after injury, the rapport built in the medical room is also vital to help players who might be struggling, be it in the early stages or when they’ve returned to the pitch.
“The big thing for us is to develop a relationship with our players,” he continued.
“We always work at developing a meaningful relationship and hopefully, by that, they’ll be a member of staff that a player would connect well with and feel comfortable sharing something that they want to talk about.
“It’s trying to make the environment as comfortable as possible, so they can open up and have a chat to us.
“They’re macho guys that get on the pitch and give it everything, but sometimes the hardest thing is to open your mouth and speak about something that’s really bothering you.
“That’s what’s important about having those relationships where we hope the players feel free to have those conversations with us.”
Someone who Roberts has worked extremely closely with is midfielder, Lewis Cook, who continues to recover from a second ACL injury in the space of three years.
The South African doctor knows all too well the courage within the 24-year-old and couldn’t speak highly enough of his attitude since scan results following March’s 1-1 draw with Preston revealed he would spend a number of months on the sidelines.
“He’s got an amazing character and mental strength because it’s really tough,” Roberts admitted.
“He’s been through that injury before and he knows what it entails. He knows the long path that is ahead and that in itself is a big thing to overcome.
“However, he also knows what he needs to do and the work to come, so there’s positives and negatives, particularly in the early days when you’re thinking about the long journey ahead of you because you’ve been through it before.
“That’s the hard part initially and it does take a lot of mental strength.”
With the medical team and Cook knowing exactly what lies ahead, Roberts concluded by stating how they’re determined to mix up his rehab journey in order to avoid making such a long and repetitive process so intimidating.
“I would say, especially with a re-injury, early on you have flashbacks of this whole long procedure that you’re going to have to go through yet again.
“It’s quite daunting, so we try and mix it up quite a bit. We send Lewis on rehab holidays and we change the therapist, we won’t do exactly the same as we did with his previous injury.
“We’ll tweak things and try and do it a little more differently, so it’s new for him and challenging all the time.
“He’s doing really well and his mental strength is extremely strong.”
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