Have you ever suffered an injury that took you away from your sport for a period of time?
Or as a coach or parent, had an athlete that had to be away from their sport due to injury?
This is all too relative of a topic for me right now as 6 weeks ago I tore my achilles playing soccer. For these 6 weeks I have been forced to completely change my way of life while managing the inevitable ups and downs of thoughts and emotions that have come with it.
This injury also had me reflect back to a less severe injury that I faced when I was playing college soccer, an injury that still had an incredible impact on my capability to play at 100% and my self-belief and confidence that I had built to that point.
Outside of the obvious impact of injuries such as the physical pain, change in routines/capabilities, and forced down time, injuries can be devastating to our mental and emotional well-being.
Lets take a look at some common mental and emotional consequence of injuries:
- Increased stress/anxiety
- Increased sadness and disappointment
- Trauma symptoms
- Consequences of isolation- loneliness, sadness, etc..
- Substance use increased
- Crisis in identity
- Consequences of changes in sleep schedules and eating
- Decreased self-esteem and confidence
- Loss of motivation
- Impact of increased screen time
The athletic world is able to provide the latest up to date physical treatment for injuries but seems to miss the mark on a universal process to address the mental and emotional aspects of the recovery.
It is just as important to attend to the athlete’s mental health during an injury as it is to attend to their physical health
The Mental and Emotional Challenges of an Injury
The challenge with injuries is that many athletes tend to experience lots of negative thoughts and emotions, especially in the early stages:
Why did this happen to me?
What if I dont come back strong?
Will I still have a spot on the team?
Will my teammates still like me?
Can I still achieve my goals?
Disappointment, fear, sadness, loneliness, and anxiety is expected and drives some of that unpleasant thinking initially.
For some, different types of thinking traps tend to prevail such as catastrophizing (“This is going to ruin my future”), fortune telling (“I will not come back as strong”), and a snowball narrative (“things are just going to keep getting worse”). And most have a fear of re-injury, slowing down the rehab process.
Top Strategies to Mentally and Emotionally Recover From an Injury
Whenever we look to address the mental and emotional elements of an injured athlete, we should always be curious about what they think and believe. That inner narrative, or the stories we tell ourselves, have A LOT to do with our emotional and behavioral experience.
1- See a therapist or sport psychologist! But if that's not possible, here is what you should know...
CBT (or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) is the approach that therapists and sport psychologists would take to help with recovery. CBT aims to help the athlete identify what they are thinking and feeling, as well as how they are behaving so that they can modify unhelpful thoughts and create proactive and goal directed behaviors.
Dr. Ross Wadey and Dr. Melissa Day are two sport psychologists who are experts in injury recovery (listen to Podcast- Sport Psych Show- Ep. 213 to hear more from them together). They mention a few narratives that tend to be helpful for athletes, although they certainly recognize that not one narrative is best and that creating conversation with the athlete to find out what works best for them is ideal:
1- Injury is to be expected! It is a normal part of athletics. “Lots of very successful athletes have had to go through injuries and most of them make a full recovery. I can too.”
2- Resiliency Narrative- “I’m going to work hard. Ill be back. I can overcome this”
3- Longevity Narrative- “This will take time, but Ill be back. There will be ups and downs along the way, but remember, its a long game back to recovery.”
It is very natural to think negative thoughts and feel unpleasant feelings after an injury but we have to do our best to reframe the situation towards hope, gratitude, motivation, etc… As parents and coaches, we should be sure to validate and empathize with the difficulty of the injury, but be sure to help them reframe and reinforce positive inner stories.
Injuries, although world shaking, can also be an opportunity to reset, and make positive changes in your life. No situation is completely negative on its own, it is how we view it that makes all the difference.
2- Implement relaxation strategies
Having the tools to know how to relax is critical. Injuries create emotional swings in us all. We need the skills to be able to manage the unpleasant feelings when they occur. Deep rhythmic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are the two bedrock relaxation skills but knowing what coping skills work best for each athlete is ideal. Is it taking baths? Or certain music? Or a walk outside?
Reducing stress → reduces cortisol →increases healing and quicker recovery
Here is a link to a rhythmic breathing blog that I have written to get you started:
3- Pick Up the Mental Training
There is no better time than now to start some mental training, either the rhythmic breathing, mindfulness, yoga, journaling, meditation, or visualization. The benefits of these activities are worth their weight in gold when we are injured. The self-awareness and reflection alone is key during this challenging time.
4- Set Goals
Yes, it is important to set long term goals around recovery but we must realize those dates may change based on progress and the uncontrollables to your situation.
Process goals though can be very helpful to you feeling a sense of accomplishment. They give you actionable items that help you to feel in control, competent, and a sense that you are moving closer back to playing your sport.
In your calendar, write down daily things that you can do that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time stamped.
Ex. In this 7 day week, I want to do all of my physical therapy exercises each day for 10 minutes. This goal is very specific, measurable (10 minutes), attainable, relevant to healing, and time stamped (1 week).
5- For Coaches and Parents- Watch your own anxieties, and listen to your athlete!
Positive relationships from friends, coaches, teammates, and family members can be one of the most powerful forces to ease the burden of athletic injuries.
This is an opportunity for you to connect and support. That said we should be careful not to judge, put down, give too many opinions, or let your own emotions/ anxieties about the future get the best of you. This is a great time to listen to your athlete and help them to feel heard and understood. Ask them questions, be curious, validate their experience, empathize, and summarize, ask them what you can do to be helpful.
Lets face it, injuries are not fun, but they most certainly are a normal part of athletics. Having awareness of what could be helpful and acting on some of the suggestions above may just get your athlete over the mental hump and back to confident play.
If you have any questions or would like support for your injured athlete, don’t hesitate to email me at [email protected] or fill out the contact us page on the website: positivelyelite.com.
Best wishes in healing! I still have another few months of mine : )
Powell Cucchiella, LMHC