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Managing Athletic Injuries | Sports Psychology Tips


Managing Athletic Injuries

How have injuries impacted you mentally and physically in the past?

The physical pain of injury and rehab are difficult, but the mental impact of injury is much more challenging.

The physical side of injury (physical pain, discomfort, potential surgery, rehab, and re-conditioning) is undoubtedly extremely difficult.

However, injured athletes experience several emotional and mental challenges, including the mental management of pain, being on the sidelines, loss of identity, and dealing with feelings of isolation.

An injured athlete’s world can be bogged down by “What Ifs.”

  • What if I lose my role on the team?
  • What if I’m replaced as a starter?
  • What if I won’t fully heal?
  • What if I can’t finish out the season?
  • What if I don’t heal in time for the playoffs?
  • What if I re-injure myself?
  • What if I can’t play anymore?
  • What if I lose out on a college scholarship?

“What Ifs” are conditional statements that trap many injured athletes in negativity and hopelessness. Not only do these statements affect your emotional state, they can interfere with the recovery process.

Pessimistic thinking increases stress and anxiety and elevates stress hormones within the body, interfering with the body’s ability to heal.

In addition, when the injured athlete returns to competition, high stress levels cause a “bracing effect,” where increased muscle tension can lead to re-injury.

Consciously choosing a positive mindset will flip the script and dramatically improve your chances of a quick and successful recovery from injury.

A positive mindset is where you focus on a successful and speedy recovery rather than negative “what ifs.”

Every athlete will experience an initial adverse reaction to injury, but moving forward from injury requires that you process your circumstances and then focus on your mental and physical recovery one day at a time.

How do you bounce back from a sports injury?

The first step in bouncing back is to process your emotions. The sooner you can work through your intense emotions, the quicker you can move forward.

The next step is to evaluate the severity of the injury with a doctor, physical therapist, or athletic trainer.

Afterward, create a rehabilitation plan, including how you will work on building your mental toughness. Each week, assess your progress and adjust your plan as necessary.

Each of these steps helps you focus on solutions or positive action. The goal is to maintain a positive attitude and a sense of control throughout the recovery process to return to competition physically and mentally stronger.

Late in the 2023 NFL season, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Zach Cunningham suffered a hamstring injury and watched from the sidelines as the San Francisco 49ers dominated the Eagles, 42-19.

After the game, Cunningham talked about how difficult it was to be injured but stated he was focused on supporting his teammates and rehabbing his injury.

CUNNINGHAM: “It was really tough. I mean, having to sit and watch from the sidelines, it’s always hard having to sit out anyway…. It sucked a lot, man. You gotta focus on the stuff that you can control. I was out there trying to help where I could as far as anything I saw out there on the field. That and working on getting back. That’s my main focus.”

Focusing on what you can control, such as the recovery process, and supporting your teammates is empowering. Focusing on what you can do helps you maintain a positive perspective and can improve your mental and physical recovery.

Focus on what you can control. Setting goals to maintain a positive and productive focus is important when injured.

Set three athletic or rehab goals each day, such as 15 minutes of visualization, maintaining a positive attitude during rehab, discussing game strategy with your coach, or strength training.

Setting goals helps you move forward and build mental toughness along the way.

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