Injury is one of the most common threats that athletes encounter during the season. Athletes frequently take part in major competitions despite ‘having a niggle’ or carrying a larger injury, ignoring the pain and pushing through the pain barrier in order to achieve their goals. In the end, this can result in further injury and in turn less time in competing in your sport. You have trained so hard, you have put in the time and the hard core effort and then you feel your body lets you down, thus resulting in feelings of anger, frustration and disappointment. The physical extent of an injury may be very clear for an athlete to see, however when it comes to an athlete’s ability to cope psychologically it is not as transparent.
For athletes, their sport can be a major boost for their self esteem, they gain enjoyment and self satisfaction in achieving their set target goals and mastering new skills. They can use their sport as a constructive way to cope with stress in their everyday life,for example a cyclist might jump on their bike, the road opens up without a care in the world, a sense of release, a physical outlet for stress. If you are a serious athlete then you have spent a substantial amount of your time, training, competing, surrounding yourself with like minded individuals, “I am an athlete” it is how you see yourself and how others see you. However, when injury raises its ugly head it can take a significant psychological toll on the athlete. Feelings of losing one’s identity is a common feeling that athlete’s face, now that you are injured those training sessions with your friends are replaced with feelings of not knowing what to do with yourself, even feelings of jealousy that you can’t join them. Research has highlighted many psychological factors that are common for athletes to experience once injured: feelings of isolation, anxiety, fear of re-injury, however frustration, depression, anger and tension are highlighted as the highest ranked emotions that athletes encounter when injured. As an athlete how you cope with injury may define your path to full recovery or re-injury.
As an athlete how can I cope with injury in an effective way so that the psychological pain is minimized?
As an athlete you can follow this step by step process using the acronym: R-E-C-O-V-E-R
R – REST: Rest and restrict activity, follow protocols and refuel.
It is very easy to become over anxious and trying to rush the healing process, but this may set yourself up for another more serious injury. Sometimes the fastest way of coming back is the slowest. GO SLOWER, ARRIVE SOONER!
E –EVALUATE: Evaluate with experts, share concerns and follow rehab.
Ensure that you make regular contact with the experts, follow the rehab program that is outlined.
C-CONNECT: Connect with others, both inside and outside your sporting bubble
Research highlights the enormous benefit of social support during the rehabilitation phase. This social support can refer to staying connected with individuals within your sporting world, but also it is very important to note that this in-built support network may be too involved in their own training to be objectively helpful during the hard times so it is important that you have a support network outside of your sporting world also. Social support and community connections can benefit our physical and mental health and wellbeing.
O – OPPURTUNITY: Oppurtunity to learn new skills and address any weaknesses
This is the perfect opportunity to either brush up on or to really practice the mental aspect of the game. Visualization, goal setting, remaining focused or only a small number of the exercises that you can practice, so when you do return after recovery, not only are you physically strong but also mentally strong.
V – VISUALISE: Visualise your progress step by step, keeping it real.
Visualization is beneficial to athletes who are injured as it does not require any physical activity, yet it still improves an athlete’s self confidence. Research has highlighted how using visualization and by imagining the injury repairing it can promote healing and manage pain.
E- ELIMINATE FEAR: Eliminate fear, trust your body and be flexible in your recovery goals
Fear of re-injury is a very common fear for athletes, they often have a heightened experience of vulnerability. Athletes need to draw on their mental skills to improve their focus and concentration. Focus on what you WANT to happen, NOT what you’re afraid will. You can also use skills such as goal setting to help you with your recovery goals. Goal setting is an extremely beneficial technique for improving performance.
R- RETURN TO PLAY: Return to play, focus on psychological readiness and improvement
You have been patient, you have followed the steps of recovery and you are psychologically ready, now it is time to get back to the sport that you love.
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About Nollaig O' Sullivan
I am a Sport Psychologist with an interest in an array of sports and in the psychological performance of Irish dance