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The Psychology of Athletic Injuries Matthew Braegelmann Injuries are as much a part of athletics as timeouts and buzzer beaters. They are inevitable hazards that come with the territory. It is how an athlete deals with these injuries and setbacks that truly show their character and resolve. Major injuries that an athlete endures through can affect many other aspects of their overall health and can have extensive detrimental effects if left unresolved. It is how athletes of all levels deal with their injury that separates them. When an athlete suffers the initial injury, the affects can be devastating. What was once thought of as invincible and unbreakable now seems very vulnerable. After suffering an injury, there are substantial changes in an athlete’s disposition. The largest changes seem to be in the initial stages of the injury when an athlete may undergo many emotions such as anxiety, fear, anger, and confusion. Athlete’s emotions are psychological reactions most often seen as a result of the evaluation of their injury (Vergeer, 2006). Their self-esteem can be affected as well as loss of independence depending on the location and severity of the injury (Tracey, 2003). Apart from the physical stressors are the social and performance stressors associated with the injury. Being apart from their perceived, normal environment is a major social stressor. An athlete may experience social isolation from their team and coaches as well as pressure to return to competition too early. They may also negatively compare themselves to their teammates, no longer being able to perform at the level they once had, that may lead to negative self-talk and even further emotional stress (Eklund & Podlog, 2007). Performance stressors too can play a role in impeding the recovery process, an athlete may worry too much over such stressors as falling 1 behind in their training, losing their spot on the team, or failing to ever reach their pre-injury levels again. After suffering a catastrophic injury, how does an athlete rebound and begin the rehabilitation process? One of two things may happen to an athlete’s mindset after their injury; they either perceive the injury as negative or believe it was just an untimely accident and grow as an individual from it. The perception that the injury was negative may lead to the athlete sulking or feeling hopeless and left behind. The athlete may dwell on the “what ifs” and they can drive themselves insane replaying the last images in their head before the injury and think about what they may have been able to do differently (Tracey, 2003). Where does the blame lie, an athlete may believe they were solely responsible for their injury instead of truly believing it was an accident that was out of their control. Once an athlete has these emotions, there are bouts of self- doubt and anger. In contrast, an athlete may use the injury as motivation to learn the game from a mental standpoint further while they recover, and once they are able to return to their training, they too use their injury as further motivation. Viewing the opportunity as positive and embracing it as a chance to get better. It is how each individual athlete is made up, their cognitive appraisal of the given situation. How each individual athlete feels about their injury, either negative or positive, will influence their recovery process (Finch, 2010). An athlete’s cognitive appraisal of their injury, whether positive or negative, will affect them both physically and mentally. When first starting the rehabilitation regiment, it is better for the emotions of the athlete to explicitly visualize their injury on their own bodies as opposed to just seeing the injured area wrapped in bandages (Tracey, 2003). If an athlete is curious as to what the injury looks like, that 2 is a positive step in the right direction towards recovery. They can visually see their body healing itself and in turn have renewed levels of confidence and drive. Getting comfortable with the injury is a major step in the right direction towards recovery. Looking at the injured area in the mirror and touching the injured area itself are major aspects of shaping an athlete’s positive mental recovery (Vergeer, 2006). The road to recovery can be a long and arduous journey. But it is made much easier when an athlete’s perception of their injury and the mental appraisal behind the injury is positive. The difference in recovery time for all athletes is the meaning that they give to their injury or the label that they put on their current situation. Positive mental appraisal can have a dramatic impact on the athlete’s emotions and behaviors associated with recovery (Eklund & Podlog, 2009). When an athlete comes to the realization that they will indeed regain their old form and make a full recovery from their injuries, that is when they need the social support of their teammates, coaches, and athletic trainers the most. Undoubtedly coaches and teammates play the largest role in the rehabilitation process of an athlete. Support given by coaches is beneficial in providing reassurance to the athlete and putting to rest any doubts that they may encounter about themselves or the process of recovery. Coaches also provide words of encouragement to their athletes making it easier for the athletes to stick with their difficult rehabilitation efforts (Eklund & Podlog, 2007). Athletes need different forms of social support at different periods of their recovery. There are times when the athlete will need emotional, informational, and practical support. The need for emotional support is more important when first starting the rehabilitation regiment when 3 athletes are starting to come to the reality of their daunting task and may need that extra motivation. At the end of the recovery, athletes need informational support from athletic trainers working in conjunction with their coaches so that although the athlete may feel fine, they should not return too soon and risk re-injury (Eklund & Podlog, 2007). As the athlete slowly regains their confidence and shows signs of returning to their old form, one of the biggest factors contributing to the emotional well being of the athlete is the importance of being with their teammates at practice. Just seeing their teammates and being able to observe practice does wonders for the recovery process of the athlete. The teammates offer emotional support and it helps the athlete maintain a connection with not only their team and coaches but also to the sport that they know and love, being in an environment that they are accustomed to (Tracey, 2003). Another form of emotional support is the tests and assessments given to the athlete during the rehabilitation process. Going through the personalized tests and seeing results from day to day contributed highly to the reassurance that the athlete was progressing as they should (Eklund & Podlog, 2009). A further form of emotional support can come from the athletic training staff working with the injured athlete. It is best to always be open and honest with the athlete about their injuries. Provide support and let the athlete know the extent of the injury and recovery time (Tracey, 2003). Once the athlete is fully recovered from their injury, it is time to get back into their training routine and ultimately back to live action. At first an athlete may be apprehensive about returning to competition following their injury. It is shown that the fear of re-injury is the biggest concern that an athlete has when returning to competition (Eklund & Podlog, 2007). Specific 4 concerns when an athlete returns from a major injury may be things such as increased anxiety during competition, they may focus too highly on their injury often favoring it and possibly re- injuring themselves or hurting their sport specific mechanics, or they may struggle to play up to the level that they once knew. They may have been unable to practice the skills and techniques that their opponents and teammates are using during competition hurting their effectiveness in the field of play (Eklund & Podlog, 2007). The athlete must push through the initial hardships and emotional setbacks that they encounter with help from their coaches and teammates. A further obstacle is trying to keep up during competition when the athlete’s fitness levels are not what they were before they injured themselves. The athlete must persevere and continue to work at regaining their conditioning and endurance. The self-efficacy theory states that an athlete’s perceptions of their return from injury influence their effort and their emotional behavior (Finch, 2010). What they have done and accomplished in previous competitions, the positive experiences that they have been a part of or witnessed, the verbal support they have received from their coaches and teammates, and the way they feel in mind and body during competition all play a part in an athletes appraisal of their return to sport (Eklund & Podlog, 2009). It is an athlete’s job to keep a positive mind frame throughout the rehabilitation and recovery process. Injuries happen to athletes of all size, experience, and level of play. An athlete must choose to stay positive and learn from the experience. In every aspect of an athlete’s life staying positive is a contributing force. An athlete must choose to stay positive throughout the recovery process as it will help them to recover and regain their old form faster with help from 5 social support from those around them. An athlete needs to have a positive cognitive appraisal, which is how an athlete feels about and responds to their situation whether it is injury or defeat, will have a direct impact on their physical and emotional well being (Finch, 2010). Keeping a positive mindset throughout injury, recovery, and return will have dramatic and lasting effects on the athlete and their overall health. 6
"Mindset Behind Athletic Injuries"