Mentally recouping from an injury can sometimes be more challenging than physical recovery.
We’ve got some surefire strategies to help you cope.
You’ve got everything going in your favor. You’re getting better, faster, stronger — consistently winning. Then, the unthinkable happens. You get injured. Now, you’re suddenly faced with a myriad of new physical challenges and uncertain what the future holds for your recovery and workout regimen. Perhaps most importantly, you’re in pain, and not just physical pain; the psychological pain of an injury can actually be more difficult to deal with than the injury itself, since there are countless negative emotions that can threaten to overwhelm you, including frustration, anger, helplessness, and despair. Left untreated, this serious mental trauma can lead to delayed recovery, increased anxiety, and depression.
I remember my daughter’s riding coach saying that you are not a real equestrian until you’ve fallen off the horse 100 times. Although there’s some hyperbole in that exact number, the sentiment rings true, since athletes who train hard risk falling off the proverbial horse and incurring injury every day. However, athletes in the optimal frame of mind bear that risk with the confidence that if they get hurt, they will be able to handle it.
If you’re nursing an injury — no matter how minor — there are some surefire psychological strategies you can implement to mentally recover from your injuries and come back even stronger.
- Be Proactive
Research everything about your injury and the various treatments to mend it. Consult with health and sports professionals to understand the pros and cons of available treatments so you know what to expect during rehab and recovery. As you heal, concentrate on maintaining and improving other elements of your sport. For instance, a runner mending a knee injury might perform a modified regimen to gain core strength during the recovery period. Once you’re healed and have been cleared to resume normal workouts, you might even find yourself performing better than before because of the time you put in cross-training.
- Stay Positive
Prepare to answer questions about your injury in a positive frame of mind. Your story should always include a confident “but.” For instance, “Yes, I sprained my ankle, but I’m really getting caught up on other work while I heal.” Or, “I strained my back, but I’ve been swimming so I already feel stronger.” Remember, your emotional response to injury is directly related to your recovery, so focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t.
- Set Goals
In recovery, accept where you are instead of where you think you should be. Set weekly goals and celebrate your successes; even small accomplishments can mean a lot. Recognize them. Relish them. The act of setting and reaching goals provides a sense of control and begets a positive mindset for recovery.
- Use Mental Imagery
Visualizing an optimal performance is a powerful tool for injury recovery. Research in mental imagery (as outlined in Applied Sports Psychology: Personal Growth to Peak Performance) indicates that, in circumstances like these, the brain doesn’t distinguish between what’s real and what’s imagined. That means that mere visualization can help create neural pathways that prepare the athlete for real-life action. To increase the effectiveness of your imagery, incorporate all your senses, including the high level of confidence you feel when you’re performing at your best. Additionally, try to do the visualization during a time of day when you’re most relaxed so that you’re at peak concentration, such as right before bed or when you first wake up.
In certain cases, self-help tools might not be enough for an athlete to mentally manage a devastating injury. If this occurs, rely on the services of a sport performance consultant, particularly if you experience any of the following:
Feeling unmotivated or doubting your ability to return to your sport
Feeling unmotivated to train or workout
Hesitating in situations similar to ones where you were hurt
Holding back even when you’ve been cleared to play
Experiencing excessive worry and/or fear of re-injury
Using the active and proactive strategies outlined above (and sport performance consultants when necessary), you’ll be back on that proverbial horse in no time.