THE MENTAL SIDE OF ATHLETIC INJURIES
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 www.competitivedge.com)
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.
THE FUNCTION OF SPORT IN YOUR LIFE
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?
ATHLETE STRATEGIES FOR COPING WITH INJURIES:
Dr. Alan Goldberg