Injuries are a part of sports, but did you know many athletes believe that the mental hurdles of injury recovery far outweigh the physical pain? Now you can add Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco to the growing list of players who feel this way, as he recently disclosed his own mental challenges coming back from tearing his ACL in 2015.
Maximizing athletic performance requires playing at a peak physical level, as well as having a high degree of self-confidence. When an athlete deals with an injury, not only are there physical constraints and limitations that must be addressed, but often the anxieties of uncertainty cloud the future and chip away at self-confidence. Sometimes athletes get so confused by it all that they become consumed by questions relating to their recovery, including:
- When will I return?
- Will I get my starting position back?
- What if I go too hard too soon — will I re-aggravate the injury and miss more time?
- What future opportunities am I missing (i.e. college scholarship, all star teams, travel)
- Will I ever play at the level I played at before the injury?
- Is this the end of my sports career?
In addition to the many questions athletes often have when dealing with injury, there are many additional concerns that mediate the recovery process that aren’t always noticed or recognized. For example, most athletes assume an athletic identity over time where they become an “athlete” first and foremost (both the way they see themselves as well as how others see them). When athletes lose the athletic identity (especially during sport retirement), they are often left with the question of “who am I?” while redefining their identity.
Another variable that impacts injury recovery is social support, or, more simply, the people in your life that provide love and support during tough times. For athletes, teammates usually comprise the bulk of social support, but during the rehabilitation process there are often long voids where the athlete is left alone and without the camaraderie found around the locker room. This isolation can lead to depression, anxiety, and even leave athletes susceptible to drinking or substance abuse.
Quick tips to help
To minimize the mental hurdles athletes should consider the following:
- Learn as much about the injury and expected rehabilitation process, including realistic targets for returning to the field. Talk to doctors, trainers, and even other athletes who have experienced the same injury to help ease anxieties and possibly even learn tips to enhance the recovery process.
- Stay a part of the team. Research shows that social support is a big factor when it comes to keeping spirits high, making it important to try and attend practices and games whenever possible.
- Set goals, monitor progress. Work with your doctor to set realistic goals and be sure to keep daily notes about level of pain, strength and flexibility improvements, and any other important details pertaining to the recovery process.
- Consider professional help. While it is true not every injured athlete will need to work with a sport psychologist, many should consider this type of assistance. Athletes who experience mood swings, anger, excess anxiety, or become vulnerable to poor coping are encouraged to talk to a professional.
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