Psychology of Sports Injuries

The Psychology of Sports Injuries is a short article exploring the mental aspects of a very common physical challenge faced by athletes – getting injured

Rugby Union player getting taken from the field on a stretcher.
Sporting injuries are understandably regarded as the exclusive domain of physiotherapists yet there is growing evidence that the challenges are just as psychological in nature.

Introduction

Sports injuries – certainly from a mental point of view – are not exactly the same as the ones that can occur in non-sporting situations. For a start, they are a lot more likely to occur – particularly in high contact sports such as AFL, both rugby codes and American football. Secondly, the impact on goals and dreams of injuries – if you are an athlete – are likely to be much greater compared with injuries to non-sporting performers. I am very mindful of the fact that serious injuries can, of course, derail all types of dreams but the fact is that a dentist can still go to work with a torn ACL, a soccer player can’t. Hence the title of this article is The Psychology of Sports Injuries and not The Psychology of Injuries.

With This In Mind

A large portion of the content we write for the Mental Toughness Digest is aimed at helping you reach your full potential and perform at your best in competition. But what if you’re forced to spend time on the sideline battling with injury and going through rehabilitation to get back onto the field? This can be one of the most mentally challenging experiences athletes and performers face. Having a handful of tools and strategies to help you manage the journey can truly make a significant difference.

I should say that during the process of writing this digest I ruptured my ACL for the second time and am looking at another 9-month rehab stint following surgery, so I know the mental pain and frustration athletes go through. It’s interesting, though, because this frustration and emotion can come from a number of different places.

  • Disappointment and regret that you’re injured
  • Wondering what you could have done differently to prevent it
  • Watching your teammates still competing while you’re in a cast or brace
  • The setbacks or bad news you may receive along the journey
  • The fear that when you’re allowed to play you will find a way to injure yourself again.

With all of these mindsets, plus the many others you may experience, it’s crucial you have space where you can express these emotions. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the way you do because your sport/performance area that really matters to you has just been taken away for a period of time. As well, this emotion can really drive you and if we’re able to channel that into motivation and desire, it can act as a massive push when we’re looking to put the necessary work in during the rehabilitation process.

One of the keys to putting in the work is very strongly linked to a foundational concept of our Metuf model of mental toughness training – controlling the controllables.

All the statements I mentioned earlier exist outside of our bubble of responsibility because they are either influenceable or uninfluenceable.

They revolve around things such as the past, other people and the future. When we’re committing to our rehabilitation process we want to be sure our mind is focused on the controllables by applying the best effort to our intended actions in the present moment. By being injured we are restricted in our movements and achieving results (even the little ones) can take some time. From my experience, as well as listening to those I have worked with, the mental reward and satisfaction from knowing you have applied yourself to a gym or physiotherapy session can be equally or sometimes stronger than that felt when achieving a result. Plus, it’s more consistent, so even when you’re having a difficult day and results are out of reach, nothing can stop your application and effort. Knowing that can be a massive boost in morale, confidence and motivation to keep going.

This development of confidence is also a really key part of someone’s rehabilitation process, both in regards to regaining the confidence of the specific skill set required to compete in your sport/performance area and the confidence in the part of my body that has been injured. We want to be able to trust that once we start competing again, our bodies will hold up and keep us on the field without re-injury.

There are mental strategies we can use that help us develop this confidence and they often revolve around the way we mentally map out the rehabilitation journey. One of the most difficult challenges mentally is the fact that when injured we are comparatively a long way from the technical and physical levels of our optimal selves. If we see the gap between the two as one step it is often too big and unrealistic to expect that we can simply make that change.

A better way of viewing the situation is by seeing it as a process of stepping stones, each one getting us closer to our end goal. Some of these stepping stones are going to be about our physical capabilities (strength, fitness and flexibility) and have nothing to do with the specific skill set required to play our sport. Others are going to be very skill-set related.

The combination of these provides the complete picture of what is required for us to be at full capacity again. Each time we jump from one stone to the next this is another achievement and boost in our confidence that we’re heading in the right direction and further strengthens the trust we have in our body. This way of breaking things down doesn’t mean the journey won’t be challenging but allows it to be much more realistic and achievable. It also allows us to problem solve at a much more manageable level when things aren’t going our way.

Once we have successfully completed this rehabilitation journey and are ready to step back onto the field, we may be faced with new mental challenges. We may ask ourselves “Can I still compete at this level?”, “Am I ready?” or even “Have I done enough to be here?”.

In taking the time to break down the journey into smaller parts and continually keeping the focus on the controllables, it allows us not only to develop the physical readiness to step out onto the field but also the mental readiness. Each stage along the way has allowed us to mentally keep track of the work we are doing and the achievements we have made.

Now this is done and we’re running out into competition again, we want the same solid focus on effort. Keep our expectations of the match focused on the controllables and not expect ourselves to do what we could the last time we were here but rather thinking about what the work we have done off the field has positioned us to do. In other words, applying our best effort to our intended actions in the present moment. Taking care of this ensures we remain in touch with ourselves throughout the match and play to the level we have prepared for.

If you’re reading this and wish to discuss the mental side of your injury rehabilitation further, or wish to ask any questions about some of the mental toughness principles discussed, then please don’t hesitate to get in contact by emailing me directly and confidentially at david@condorperformance.com. I would love to help and be a part of your journey back to full fitness.

‘The Psychology of Sports Injuries’ was first written in 2016 but updated in 2019.