Written by : Dr. Alan Goldberg | Posted on : Sep 21, 2013


A Coach’s and Athlete’s Guide to

Psychologically Rebounding from Injury

By: Dr. Alan Goldberg

(Special permission is taken from Dr. Goldberg. This is a summarized version of the original article. The complete article is shown in


You've been involved in your sport longer than you can remember. You've busted your butt to become as good in your sport as possible and a force to be reckoned with in competitions. Known for your work ethic, consistency and ability to come through in the clutch, you’ve been the one your team has always been able to depend on in crunch time. You live to practice and perform. You have a passion to compete. You flat out love your sport. It’s who you are! It’s how you define yourself. Then the unthinkable happens! It seems to have slowly snuck up on you. It’s not like there was any major injury or anything. You didn’t really feel anything pull, pop or break. After a big competition you noticed some pain and tenderness in your shoulder. “No problem,” you thought to yourself. The next day in practice you notice that your shoulder still feels tight and sore. That night, when you can't even lift your arm to brush your teeth, you start to get worried for the first time.

Something's very wrong here and it's time to drag your butt to the doctor!

Seeing a sports medicine specialist confirms your worst fears. Your shoulder is really bad and he says that you have to be out of action for at least two to three months! Unless you take care of that shoulder and give it enough rest, you may risk doing some permanent damage. What does that mean you ask? He tells you that if you continue to play through the pain, that you may be jeopardizing your athletic career!

The psychological pain caused by your injury and the temporary or permanent loss of your sport can be far more devastating than the strained or torn ligaments, pulled muscles, ripped cartilage or broken bones. Unless this psychological pain is directly addressed and "treated", your overall recovery will be slow and incomplete. Coaches and parents who are sensitive to the issues of the injured athlete help speed up the rehab process and significantly lessen the mental anguish that the athlete must struggle with. To better understand what happens psychologically when an athlete is kept out of action because of an injury, it's important to briefly examine the three major functions that sport plays in the athlete’s life.




  • #1 SENSE OF IDENTITY - If you are a serious athlete and have been competing long enough, then you will soon come to see yourself in terms of your sport. It's how you see yourself and how others see you.
  • #2 MAJOR SOURCE OF SELF-ESTEEM - As a young tennis player growing up in a family with distant and uninvolved parents, tennis served (no pun intended) as my sole source of self-esteem. For most serious athletes, your sport provides you with this same continual source of positive reinforcement and feedback. There is enjoyment and self-satisfaction in mastering new skills, overcoming ever more challenging obstacles and progressively getting stronger and better.
  • #3 A CONSTRUCTIVE WAY TO COPE WITH STRESS - There is absolutely no question that physical exercise helps you better handle stress of all kinds. The individual without a way to physically “burn” stress out of his body may even turn to drugs, alcohol or some other addictive, self-destructive behavior to help him cope. (This is not to say that exercise can't itself be used addictively and in a self-destructive manner because, of course it can.).



So what happens to all of these psychological goodies when you're suddenly sidelined by an injury? To put it simply, you become overwhelmed by a variety of internal and external losses. You lose your place and role on the team. ?An Olympic gymnast permanently sidelined from her sport because of a career-ending injury put it quite clearly. "I've been doing gymnastics since I was 6 years old. It's all I know. It’s who I am and what I do. If I'm not a gymnast then who am I really"?

Without your sport, with its’ frequent practices and competitions, you suddenly have a potentially significant vacuum in your sense of self that you have to try to fill. Unfortunately, most serious athletes commit so much of their free time to excelling in their sport that other, non-athletic activities are virtually impossible.

Hand in hand with this sense of identity confusion comes 2 other significant losses: First, you lose you physical health and sense of invincibility. Furthermore, injuries frequently make you dependent upon others, i.e. doctors, trainers, physical therapists, etc.; Most athletes have a strong independent streak and hate having to depend on anyone other than themselves.

Second, you lose a major source of your self-esteem. Suddenly, you’re plagued with self-doubts and have to struggle with questions of your own self-worth. The other significant feeling that accompanies these losses is a sense of alienation and isolation.

The final loss that accompanies a physical injury lies in the athlete's inability to constructively cope with stress. If your sport has been a vehicle for you to tame chronic low self-esteem or manage psychic stress, an injury suddenly robs you of this familiar and comfortable coping mechanism.

So what does all this loss mean to you as an athlete or to your coach? If you want to speed up the rehab process as much as possible, then you need to EXPECT certain feelings and behaviors to emerge as a result of your injury. You need to understand that these feelings and behaviors are absolutely NORMAL and a natural part of successfully coping. Many athletes first meet their injury with outright denial. Frequently the injury is often accompanied by feelings of intense anger. The athlete may adopt a "why me, why now" attitude and act hostile and resentful to coaches, teammates, parents and friends. So what is the best way to handle injury so that the psychological pain is minimized?




  • #1 BE SAD - Allow yourself to mourn and feel whatever loss you are experiencing. Remember that! Feeling is part of healing!
  • #2 DEAL WITH WHAT IS - Injured athletes have a tendency to focus on the "could 'a beens", "should 'a beens" and the "way it was" IF ONLY they hadn't gotten hurt.
  • #3 SET NEW, MORE REALISTIC GOALS FOR YOURSELF - As you begin the recovery process, you may very well have to learn to measure your successes very differently than ever before, perhaps in millimeters now instead of meters the way it was before your injury.
  • #4 MAINTAIN A POSITIVE ATTITUDE, NO MATTER WHAT – As difficult as this will be, try to stay as positive as possible. Understand that “IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME.”
  • #5 TAKE AN ACTIVE PART IN YOUR HEALING – Be conscientious about your physical therapy. Follow the doctor's advice closely. Don’t cut corners.
  • #6 CONTINUE TO "PRACTICE" AND "WORK OUT". If your injury allows you to still continue any part of your training, do so! If not, "practice" mentally. Use mental rehearsal on a daily basis (5 -10 minutes at a time) to see, hear and feel yourself performing in your sport, executing flawlessly with perfect timing.
  • #7 SEEK OUT THE SUPPORT OF YOUR TEAMMATES - Participate in team functions. FIGHT the urge to isolate yourself.
  • #8 THINK ABOUT HOW TO USE YOUR SPORTS LEARNING AND EXPERIENCE IN OTHER AREAS OF YOUR LIFE - If your injury forces you into permanent retirement, you may feel that you have little to no skills or expertise that you can transfer from your sport to other endeavors. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH!
  • #9 IF NECESSARY, SEEK OUT A COUNSELOR- If you are really depressed for an extended period of time, have lost interest in things that use to excite you, have noticed that your sleep and eating patterns have changed and/or you are having suicidal thoughts, seek professional help! Don’t fool around here.
  • #10 BE PATIENT– If your injury is temporary, allow yourself enough time to heal properly. If you're over anxious to get back to the court, field, course or pool and rush the healing process, then you may set yourself up for another, more serious injury which may cost you even more time. COACHING STRATEGIES FOR HELPING THE INJURED ATHLETE COPE:
  • #1 BE EMPATHIC- Let your athletes know that YOU understand what THEY are feeling and having to go through.
  • #2 WORK WITH THEIR SELF-ESTEEM - Understand that the injured athlete has just suffered a major blow to his feelings of self-worth and is therefore feeling quite vulnerable.
  • #3 GIVE THEM A ROLE ON THE TEAM- Help the injured athlete fight the their feelings of worthlessness and identity confusion by giving them another role on the team.
  • #4 DON’T ALLOW THE ATHLETE TO ISOLATE HIMSELF FROM THE TEAM - Insist that the athlete continue to function as an important member/part of the team.
  • #5 LET YOUR ATHLETE KNOW THAT YOU CARE – Increase contact and communication with the injured athlete.
  • #6 WHEN APPROPRIATE, EXPECT THE ATHLETE TO "PRACTICE" - Whether it’s limited physical or purely mental, let the injured athlete know that you expect her to continue her training, however modified.
  • #7 HELP THE ATHLETE GET IN TOUCH WITH OTHER AREAS OF PERSONAL STRENGTH - Help the injured athlete understand that excelling in her sport demands a tremendous amount of success and life skills that she has already developed and that she can learn to transfer to other areas in her life.
  • #8 IF THE ATHLETE'S DEPRESSION DOES NOT LIFT OR IF THERE ARE WARNING SIGNS IMMEDIATELY REFER HIM/HER TO A PROFESSIONAL- If the athlete is seriously depressed (has lost interest in activities, shows changes in eating and sleeping habits, or is having suicidal thoughts or feelings), it is critically important that you refer him/her for professional counseling..

Dr. Alan Goldberg