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Mindset Behind Athletic Injuries


									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

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

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,


         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

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

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

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.


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