Athletes of all ages and skill levels risk injury every time they take to the field, and even though sport medicine has provided amazing treatments to help with sport injuries, the mental recovery can be an entirely different challenge altogether. In fact, most athletes have told me that the physical pain and anguish associated with a sport injury goes away a lot faster than the uncertainty, anxiety, and mood challenges related to the injury recovery process. Not knowing the length of the rehabilitation process, possibly losing a starting position, and worrying about future potential missed opportunities (i.e. scholarships) are just a few of the concerns injured athletes commonly experience.
Physical and mental challenges
Athletes who experience a sport injury deal with both physical and mental implications and challenges. On the physical side, often pain management and medical procedures designed to mend broken bones and rebuild torn muscles are the big hurdles to address. On the mental side, the loss of control, uncertainly for the future, and isolation away from teammates can weigh heavy on an athlete’s mind. While both physical and mental issues are important to recognize, it is often the mental aspects of injury recovery that largely go unnoticed. Reasons for this include the fact that mental challenges aren’t “seen” like a leg brace or a cast, as well as the fact that many athletes portray a veneer of toughness when recovering from an injury — even though on the inside they are feeling quite vulnerable.
Loss of control
One of the biggest variables linked to stress is human control, or lack thereof. When it comes to sport injuries, it is not uncommon for athletes to lose their sense of control, especially as this applies to injury recovery protocols, the unknown time needed to recover, and the eventual uncertainties that loom once the athlete eventually takes the field again and tries to play at 100%. On the other hand, the more an athlete feels in control the lower level of stress the athlete will experience. Some ideas to help athletes regain a healthy sense of control include the following:
- Understanding as much as possible about the nature of the injury and related recovery procedures.
- Accepting the amount of time needed to recover and being committed to the rehabilitation process.
- Setting specific, measurable goals that can be looked at daily so that benchmarks and progress can be witnessed.
- Staying as close to the team as possible, including attending practices and games so that a normal schedule can be maintained.
Mood state and motivation
Helping athletes keep a healthy mood state is key when dealing with sport injuries. A big way to do this is to help teach healthy and effective coping so that stress doesn’t mount and leave the athlete vulnerable to poor coping that may include drugs, alcohol, and reckless behaviors. When athletes become depressed during injury recovery, they often lose their motivation, focus, and overall ability to find the energy needed to be successful in life. It is for these reasons that the following ideas be considered to help athletes cope in healthy ways:
- Create opportunities for the athlete to talk about how he or she is feeling, and try not to assert the old “no pain, no gain” philosophy to toughen up a youngster struggling with an injury. Instead, validate any insecurities that might be voiced, and help normalize the feelings.
- Try and maintain normal patterns of behavior, especially as this applies to being around the team. Talk to the coach and see if there are ways the athlete can still feel engaged, like helping with scouting opponents.
- Consider talking to a professional – sport psychologists and other helping professionals can really help when it comes to overcoming the stress associated with a sport injury.
- Find previous success stories and talk about them with your child. These days it isn’t difficult to do an internet search and find athletes who have previously dealt with the same (or similar) injury and gone on to have a successful career — these kinds of stories can inspire young athletes to work hard to one day become their own success story.
Remember, most athletes don’t explicitly state that they are struggling with the mental aspects relating to a sport injury, meaning that it is important for parents, coaches, and teammates to keep an open eye to other less obvious signs that the injured athlete may be having trouble. The good news is that with support, structure, and empathy most injured athletes do successfully mange their injuries and regain their previous playing abilities again. Stay active and involved in the process, use healthy listening skills, and seek professional support if you think an athlete may not be successfully dealing with a sport injury.