Working back from injury is difficult physically for obvious reasons, but what many people don’t think about is the toll it can take on athletes mentally.
Athletes who compete at the highest levels are expected to come back from injury as soon as possible and regain their form from before the injury right away, but many return to play too soon and either re-injure themselves or cannot play at the level they were before.
A large section of sport psychology is dedicated to helping athletes maintain their mental states during injuries, and helping them through the pressures, difficulties, and failures that often follow serious injuries. It is hard for anyone to sustain an injury, but for athletes who spend their lives and earn their livings using their bodies it can be especially difficult mentally.
The idea of injury psychology stems from a desire to know what goes on inside the minds of injured athletes. Athletic trainers can stitch and ice players back to their original physical form, but being away from the sport for extended periods of time and not getting game experience can take a toll on players’ psyche.
The Mental Game
Often teams find that players are not the same when they come back from an injury. This can be because the player does not yet feel re-acclimated to the level of play, or simply because they player has not yet relearned to trust the part of the body that they injured.
Playing at the same level before and after a major injury takes not only extensive physical therapy to regain form, but also dedication to keeping a balanced and focused mental state. Players can sometimes feel left out while injured if they play a team sport, and it can be difficult to regain chemistry with teammates after they return.
Spending extended periods of time out of play due to injury can cause players to lose their sense of self and can trigger a reaction in the brain similar to grief. So sport psychologists are finding ways to keep players mentally focused and ready to return after month or year long hiatuses.
Common strategies for coping with post-injury stress and failure include meditation and trying to examine one’s own thoughts when something goes wrong.
“Learning to take a step back and think of your own thoughts as something separate from yourself is key to moving past mental blocks.” – Kim Richards, Professional Psychologist
A major key to keeping athletes motivated is convincing them that an injury is not a time of failure, it’s a time of growth and experience. When an athlete works for years to train their body and then has to sit and watch while teammates play in their place, it can feel like only bad things will come of injuries. But speaking from personal experience, injuries can help players see the game in ways they could not when they were on the court, and it teaches skills being able to be a leader in the locker room and not just by example in competition.