Injuries are a multi-faceted part of life that can affect a person not only physically but emotionally and psychologically as well. As lifelong athlete during my school years, I sustained numerous career-pausing injuries and even a career-ending injury. The physical recovery was tough at times, but for me, the hardest part was dealing with depression, anger, and anxiety, all of which I still struggle with years after the injury.
Michael Asken, PhD, director for provider well-being at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Pinnacle, has seen the varied responses athletes have to injuries. The reaction is typically based on factors like the extent and severity of the injury, how important the sport is to the athlete, their social support, the athlete’s status (professional, high school or scholarship athlete), and others.
In his experience, Asken has seen athletes respond in different ways. Some go through the traditional “stages of grief” model, which includes denial, then anger and bargaining, followed by depression until they reach acceptance. Some experience anxiety, some experience every psychological response while others may experience none of these or a have a less intense response.
“Everyone expects that being released to play will be exciting and the athlete should be excited, but sometimes there is anxiety about being re-injured and doing it all again,” Asken says.
Medical professionals are primarily concerned about the extremes of depression and denial of the injury or its severity, but according to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, psychological responses to an injury can also include lack of concentration or focus, self-doubt or lack of confidence, negative self-talk, and negative thoughts, which may not be visible to others. Overcoming these psychological responses of an injury can be just as challenging or even more so than the physical recovery, but these tips can help. In fact, they apply to virtually any setback.
- Accept that the injury is real and accept the recovery process that comes with it. This means following the rehabilitation program from the trainer or therapist and listening to your doctors, all of whom have one goal in mind: getting you back to where you want to be. simple, yet challenging, way to do this is to say out loud, “I have an injury” or “I need or to recover,” anything that will help you to accept that you are injured.
- Accept social support. It’s important to have someone you trust and who can support you throughout your recovery. This person can be a partner or spouse, a family member or friend, or someone who understands what you’re going through. They need to be someone who can provide tough love at times, but also be there through the ups and downs of the recovery. Having this person is important as they can help you accept the injury when you are struggling to do so yourself.
- Always look for the positives, whatever they may be. When athletes are recovering from injuries, especially challenging ones that take significant time, their focus may only be on the negative aspects. However, many positive things can come out of the injury such as inspiration for a future career or strengthening of relationships, but you must be open to it and not focus on the negatives of the situation.
- Set small goals and keep track of the progress. This can provide objective proof that there is improvement, even when it’s small. Seeing improvement, even minimal, can increase your motivation and help further your recovery.
- Do your best to avoid excessively negative thinking (e.g. “I’ll never get better,” “I should just give up,” “It’s not worth it,” etc.). Of course, there will be times when this happens, but it’s important to try to look forward in order to continue your recovery. It is okay to honor feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and the like.
- Learn about psychological performance enhancement skills. These skills can help you improve focus, gain confidence, deal with setbacks, develop strategies, etc. All of these are not only important in the injury recovery process but can be used once back on the field and in everyday life.
Injuries are a part of an athlete’s life, but the physical aspect may not be the hardest part. The psychological impact of an injury can feel debilitating at times, but there are ways to combat that, and hopefully lead to a successful recovery.