The psychology of sports injuries is not exactly the same as the ones that can occur in non-sporting situations. For a start, they are much more likely to occur. High contact sports such as AFL, both rugby codes and American football are fraught with injuries. Secondly, the impact on goals and dreams of injuries for athletes are greater than for non-sporting performers. I am very mindful hat serious injuries can, of course, derail all types of dreams. However 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.
A large portion of what we write for the Digest is aimed at athletes who are in top physical condition. So what happens when you are get an unexpected injury and suddenly you are struggling both physically and mentally? 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.
The Psychology of Sports Injuries is one of the most common of all mental challenges
I know first hand the mental pain and frustration athletes go through. In 2016 I ruptured my ACL for the second time and did 9-months of rehab. It’s interesting, though, because this frustration and emotion can come from a number of different places.
- Disappointment and regret that the injury has occurred
- 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 thought patterns it’s crucial you have space where you can express these emotions. There’s nothing wrong with feeling the way you do – if fact it normal. After all, one of the major aspects of your life has just hit a major speedbump. As psychologists, our job is to help injured athletes turn that frustration into motivation.
One way we help our sidelined sporting clients do this is to talk about effort more than results.
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 what we can control. This typically is our effort to our intended actions in the present moment.
By being injured we are restricted in our movements and achieving certain results – but we are not dead.
Developing An Optimal Mindset
The rewards and satisfaction from applying yourself to a gym or physiotherapy session can be just as motivating. It’s worth remembering that when you got the injury it was only your body [part] that was actually hurt – not your brain.
This development of confidence is also a key part of the rehabilitation process. It is important both in regaining skills confidence and in the part of my body that had been injured. We want to be able to trust that once we start competing again, our bodies will hold up. We don’t want to become distracted about the possibility of reinjury.
There are many mental strategies we can use that help us develop this confidence. They often revolve around the way we mentally map out the rehabilitation journey.
A good way of viewing the situation is by seeing it as a process of stepping stones. Some of these stepping stones are going to be about our physical capabilities (strength, fitness and flexibility). 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?”.
You Don’t Have To Do It Alone
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.
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.
Are you an athlete with an injury? If you are and wish to discuss the mental side of your rehabilitation then please get in touch. You can email me directly and confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to help and be a part of your journey back to full fitness.
Note that ‘The Psychology of Sports Injuries’ was first written in 2016 but updated twice in 2019.