It is no secret that one of an athlete’s greatest fears is getting injured. Coming from a division one athlete who has had her fair share of injuries (broken fingers and toes, torn ligaments and rotator cuffs, tendonitis, concussions, broken ankles, pulled muscles, etc.), being injured is one of the hardest mental battles you will face as an athlete – yes, the majority of the battle is mental. It is of the utmost importance that you recognize you are not alone and that athletes have, are, and will be injured and will continue to recover both mentally and physically for the rest of time.
Before we discuss methods of coping with an injury, let’s do a brief overview of how injuries can affect athletes. Acceptance is the first step on the road to recovery – a road you might be on if you are reading this article. Research done at the University of Rhode Island (URI) studied the effects of injuries on its division one athletes. According to the study, “getting injured is a traumatic experience for athletes; what they have devoted so much time and energy to, can be suddenly, or without warning, be taken away”– all athletes know this, of course, but receiving validation is crucial. After years of physical mastery, athletics become part of our personal identity, so when we become injured it can sometimes feel as though our identity has been stripped away. Questions such as “am I still an athlete if I can no longer practice or compete? Who am I, if not an athlete” often plague those of us who are injured. The loss of “sense or purpose and self-identity [makes those of us who are injured susceptible] to a grief cycle similar to that experienced by the terminally ill." The psychological distress we will feel as injured athletes can be a detriment to our progress as we attempt to recover and return to full fitness. It can “sensitize [us] to pain and alter the risk, response, and recovery period." This is why it is equally as important to recover mentally as well as physically.
Now let’s begin talking about resources you, the athlete, can use on your road to physical and mental recovery. One of the most important pieces of advice I would give to any injured athlete is to recognize or build your own personal support system. This can be a mix of family, friends, coaches, teammates, doctors, therapists, etc. who will be present and supportive during your recovery. Their support can encompass anything from taking you to rehab or physical therapy, being a shoulder to cry on, giving you motivation, or simply just being a friend. Whatever they might do or who they might be, your support system is there to build you up and motivate you through the physical and mental battle of recovery. The URI research cited above also showed that “talking to other athletes who had successfully recovered from their injuries helped keep them positive throughout recovery. The encouragement, support, and understanding from others may help an athlete cope with injury." Your support system is there to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself, to hold you responsible for completing your physical therapy, and to celebrate you when you make your return, but they can only do so if you learn to trust and apply their thoughts and opinions. As athletes, we become predisposed to do things ourselves and to be independent, but this is one journey you can’t complete alone. Let them help you.
In regards to things you, individually, can do as the injured athlete to actively aid your recovery, here are the best things to try:
- Let yourself be sad. It is okay not to be okay. As athletes, we want to be strong 24/7, 365 days a year. This just isn’t possible. Let yourself be sad and feel the emotions that come with being injured. Veg out, watch TV, cry, listen to sad music, eat ice cream… just do whatever you need to do.
- Accept reality. As previously mentioned, acceptance is the first stage in recovery, both physical and mental. Once you accept the fact that you are injured, you can begin working on your recovery.
- Set realistic goals for yourself. Set a series of small goals that you will be able to accomplish every week. The goals and timing will vary depending on your injury, but reaching a goal frequently will help keep your morale up and realize that you are indeed healing and making progress.
- Be positive. This one is hard, I know, especially at the beginning. The world seems like its ending, nothing seems to be the same as it was, and recovery can feel almost impossible. Allowing yourself to feel this way is okay at the beginning, as previously stated, but keeping a positive or rather trusting attitude that everything will work out is crucial for your psychological recovery.
- Be proactive and hold yourself accountable. Take your psychological and physical rehab seriously. Not only will this benefit you in the long run and help you heal faster, but it will keep you occupied and make the time slip away. Cutting corners and being careless because you don’t feel like rehabbing will only be a detriment to you and your recovery.
- Keep practicing and working out in ways that you can. Depending on your injury, do as much as you can in relation to your chosen sport. Try some modified skills and movements to keep them as sharp as possible during your period of recovery. This can help you come back stronger because you now have the time to break down skills and really improve them.
- Take notice of the other abilities you are developing. Recovery can build a myriad of skills such as determination, resilience, and persistence to name a few. These are all crucial competencies you can apply in real life. You can also inspire other injured athletes on their roads to recovery– they say the best way to learn is to teach.
- Be patient. The road it took to become an elite athlete didn’t happen overnight and the road to return to being an elite athlete won’t be overnight either. Patience is a virtue and, as mentioned above, an important life skill. Don’t rush your recovery and overexert yourself. This will only slow your recovery. Remember the tortoise and the hare.
Circling back to the beginning, the most important thing to remember as an injured athlete is that you are not alone. If, however, you are convinced that you are indeed alone, think about the athlete who wrote this article. I exist, I was injured, and I recovered. I am proof that it will work out. Trust me. You got this.