Nearly every athlete who competes in sports understands that injuries are always possible, especially in contact sports. Interestingly, sport psychologists note that when athletes experience injuries almost all focus is directed toward the physical aspects of the injury, while the mental (or emotional) aspects of injury recovery are typically overlooked. That’s both ironic – and troubling – as most athletes actually suffer far more from the emotional aspects of injury than they do the physical pain and discomfort they experience (Sport Success 360).
Interestingly, the physical pain associated with injuries usually subsides within the first 24-48 hours of the injury, yet the emotional anguish associated with injury rehabilitation can last days, weeks, months, and sometimes even years. When athletes first learn that they will likely miss a good number of upcoming games, this news is often met with shock, disbelief, denial, anger, and/or depression. These emotional responses can, in turn, lead to poor coping strategies (i.e. drinking or recreational drug usage), unusual behavioral patterns (i.e. isolating from teammates, friends, and even family), and even risky behaviors (over-spending on credit cards, gambling, speeding, etc.).
If you are a parent, coach, or other helping professional involved in youth/interscholastic athletics, be sure to take a wide lens view of all the issues the injured athlete may be experiencing – physically and emotionally. Some of the more common issues injured athletes experience are listed below:
- Loss of Personal Identity – When athletes experience injuries, especially long-term injuries, they often experience a loss of their athletic identity. Not only do others temporarily stop viewing them as athlete (the athlete’s social identity), but their self-identity is also impacted where the role of being an athlete fades into the background of the person’s overall personality. This change in perceived personality can cause distress for athletes.
- Isolation – Injured athletes often miss out on practices and other team-bonding experiences, leaving them to feel as though they are no longer an important part of the team.
- Fear of Losing Starting Position – In the old days injured athletes never lost their starting position because of an injury, but this old-school coaching mentality may be an antiquated way of thinking anymore. Unfortunately, some coaches today don’t hold starting positions for injured athletes, making the injury recovery process that much more stressful.
- Ambiguities About the Injury – While most sports injuries are well understood to team physicians, athletes do not always understand their injuries and/or the length of their rehabilitation, making the recovery that much more difficult.
- Sport Retirement – Athletes who experience a career-ending injury are by far the most at-risk for future psychological issues. Unlike other traditional jobs where retirement is planned for, with sport retirement the transition can be quite abrupt and unexpected, leaving the athlete to deal with a host of problems related to personal identity, future career plans, and overall self-worth.
Learn more about the mental aspects of sports injury recovery by picking up your copy of Sport Success 360 here.