Sports are a unique life experience in many ways, beginning with the fact that an unexpected injury can occur at any time. In fact, the injuries athletes deal with in sports can range from minor bumps and bruises, all the way to catastrophic, career-ending damage. When athletes get hurt, we almost always turn our attention to pain level, treatment options, and physical rehabilitation protocols, often at the expense of many important psychological issues and challenges. The reality is that both the physical and mental features of a sport injury should be examined if the end-goal is a healthy and confident athlete prepared to compete again at a high level.
Mental toughness for rehabilitation adherence
When an athlete experiences an injury attention is first directed toward providing pain relief and determining the nature of problem. As the crisis settles and the athlete is stabilized, rehabilitation follows — with the first phase of treatment almost always requiring some degree of rest. The initial downtime needed for the body to stabilize can be a very challenging mental experience for athletes for a number of reasons, including thoughts relating to potential loss of playing time, threats of career-ending damage, and dealing with the injury alone and away from teammates (support). There are countless unknowns, especially if the athlete hasn’t had much experience dealing with injuries, and this is just the beginning of the rehabilitation process.
In order for a full and healthy recovery to occur, it’s essential that athletes fully comply with all medical treatment protocols. The rehabilitation phase requires focus, motivation, and resiliency, and often the athlete is expected to develop and sustain a mindset built on these qualities all by him- or herself. Breaking things down further, this means specifically following daily plans, developing the motivation needed to complete all exercises, and fighting back during times of frustration and depression. As you can see, mental toughness is the catalyst needed in order for optimal rehabilitation results to occur.
Loss of social support system and identity?
Another overlooked mental aspect related to injury recovery is the previous support system (teammates and coaches) that suddenly disappears. Psychologists have discovered that the variable social support (the people around you that care about your well-being) is instrumental when it comes to injury recovery — in fact, when we have people around us providing support we generally heal faster than when we rest in isolation. For injured athletes, their social support system (the team) carries on while they are left to fight through the injury on their own, often compounding stress and creating new problems relating to stress-coping, anxiety, and mood state fluctuations.
The identity an athlete develops through sport participation can also change during an injury, especially when it’s a career-ending injury. Not only are there challenges with the self-identity (am I still an athlete?), but there are social identity concerns as well (when the world no longer sees the athlete as “athlete”). Essentially, it’s like being fired from a job you love and having to literally re-create your identity overnight.
Confidence for future on-field success
The mental challenges experienced through rehabilitation might, ironically, be the easiest stressors for an athlete to overcome. What happens the first time an athlete is given the OK to compete again after the injury has healed? Often there is a lot of anxiety, low confidence, frustration, and fear. These feelings and emotions can be amplified coming back from a serious injury, or when the injury may be potentially career-ending. Getting back out there and playing with confidence can be an incredibly challenging experience for athletes, and possibly the most mentally taxing of the entire rehabilitation process.
The primary focus of injury rehabilitation is to help an athlete regain the strength needed to compete again in the future. Helping an athlete fully recover requires professional medical attention, proper nutrition and rest, and ongoing evaluations to ensure the injury is getting better. But what about the mental stress associated with the injury? Who helps with the isolation, anxiety, and depression? And without coaches and teammates around, who serves as the social support network previously fulfilled by the team? As you can see, it takes both physical and mental assistance in order for a full athletic injury reocvery to occur.