Most athletes, competitive through recreational, experience injury in their sport at some time. There are many practitioners out there who can help heal the physical symptoms of the injury from the family doctor to the physical therapist. But dealing with the physical side of injury is only half the battle. What we cannot forget to address is the importance of healing the mind of the injured athlete. So what kinds of things do injured athletes feel and how can we as athletes, teammates, coaches, parents and friends aid the recovery process?
Many things can influence the way a person feels about their injury such as: the severity of the injury, previous injuries, their position on a team, their family and friends, and the type of sport they play. Girls often experience greater injury anxiety than boys. All of these factors combine together to leave the athlete dealing not only with the injury itself but a whole host of fears and insecurities. A player may experience fear about feeling left-out of the team activities with other teammates progressing while they are away. They may feel that they are letting themselves and their teammates down. Some may feel that they will lose their place on the team with prolonged absence. Many may have a fear regarding their ability to return to their pre-injury skill level or re-injuring themselves. Some athletes have trouble with their self-esteem and self-worth, wondering who they are if they cannot be the athlete they are used to being.
Common psychological factors that contribute to an athlete’s concerns about returning to sport:
- A fear of re-injury or further injury
- Decreased confidence that negatively affects performance
- Stress and anxiety regarding their physical condition
- Feelings of depression
So what can we do to help an injured athlete through their recovery? As coaches, parents, teammates, and friends we can support an injured athlete in many ways. First of all, it is important that we understand what they are feeling by having them talk about their fears. It is also important to find out how much support and what kind of support the athlete wants. We can involve the athlete and provide them with feelings of control by helping them imagine and plan a healthy and successful recovery and return to participation. We can help them maintain their confidence by continuing to train those parts of their body that they still can. We can provide them with tangible and progressive physical challenges to meet along their road to recovery. We can also provide them with meaningful opportunities to interact with their teammates.
Tips to help athletes cope with injuries:
- Have injured athletes to talk about their fears
- Stress management – Learning to cope with stress and anxiety is an essential part of athletic training since they are regularly put in high pressure situations. The common coping mechanisms for these situations can be transferred to an athlete suffering from an injury. Learning different relaxation techniques, muscle, self-directed or deep breathing can prevent a fear of re-injury. Imagery is another avenue to explore as this involves the use of mental images and scenarios to relax the mind.
- Provide athletes with meaningful ways to interact with their teams (e.g., through team meetings or strength training sessions)
- Provide role models of other athletes who have successfully recovered and returned to sport
- Goal setting – The injured athlete should focus on modified goals that they can accomplish on a daily or weekly basis. The new goals should be about performance, not outcome, and should be specific, measurable, realistic and individualized for the athlete. By keeping track of these goals and their subsequent achievements, a coach will be able to show them their progress and help relieve some of the stress an athlete feels towards their physical condition and increase confidence in their abilities.
- Help give athletes control over the timing of their return, making sure they are returning for the right reasons at the right time not out of feelings of pressure
- Help establish realistic expectations and short-term goals for recovery and return to play
After injury and the following recovery, the goal for most athletes is to get back on the field as soon as possible; however returning to sport after an injury is not always a clear cut process and many factors need to be considered before the choice is made. The combination of both physical rehabilitation and psychological interventions working together helps to reduce recovery time, improve coping skills, and prevents re-injury anxiety. With this multifaceted approach there is a greater likelihood that an athlete will make a smoother and quicker transition from injury, recovery, and back to training and competition. If you are a coach or athletic trainer and feel you are not equipped to deal with the psychological aspects of recovery, it’s a good idea to refer your athlete to a professional that can help them get back on track. By addressing the mental aspects of injury and recovery, an athlete is much more likely to have healthy and productive return to the sport they enjoy so much. And after all, that is what success is all about!
Podlog, L., Returning to sport following injury. SportHealth 24(4), Summer 2006-07, p.14-17.
Podlog L, Hannon J, Banham S, Wadey R. Psychological Readiness to Return to Competitive Sport Following Injury: A Qualitative Study. Sport Psychologist. March 2015;29(1):1-14.
Wrisberg, C.A. & Fisher, L.A., Staying Connected to Teammates During Rehabilitation. Athletic Therapy Today 10(2), March 2005, p.62-63.
Wrisberg, C.A. & Fisher, L.A., Understanding Sport-Injury Anxiety. Athletic Therapy Today 11(4), July 2006, p.57-58.