Whatever the sport is that you love, you know that one of the worst things that could possibly happen to you is to sustain a serious injury during the season. After all the practices and games, that sport becomes your life, and when you cannot play, you suddenly feel lost. When an injury occurs, athletes try to ignore the pain or try to hide the injury from their coach or athletic trainer in fear of missing out on game time. There are few things that an athlete hates more than sitting on the sidelines. Now, what happens to an athlete when they are kept from playing because of an injury? The answer is that it takes a significant psychological toll on the athlete. This adverse psychological effect on the athlete happens for three main reasons: our sport is our sense of identity, our major source of self-esteem, and/or a constructive way for us to cope with our stress.
When one is injured, an athlete faces at least one, if not all of these psychological factors that can overwhelm them due to the internal and external losses they are going through. The feeling of losing one’s identity when unable to continue playing the sport they love, is a very common psychological side effect of being injured. If you are unfortunate enough to sustain such an injury that limits or causes you to miss out on practice or game-time for a substantial amount of time, it can be really hard on you. Athletes immediately begin to feel as if they are losing their identity, which is often referred to as “identity confusion”. If you are a baseball player, for example, who has a major shoulder injury that is so debilitating that it ends your career, what do you do? If you have played the game since you were a little kid, you begin to question who you are without your sport. This causes stress and in some cases depression among certain individuals.
An athletes’ self esteem can often take a serious hit when one is injured, and, consequently is forced to depend on other people for help and support. Most athletes have a strong sense of being very independent. They become so consumed in the game that they begin to rely solely on the routines and rituals that they have developed on their own to prepare themselves for their lives on and off the field. Now, however, they have to learn how to be dependent on doctors, athletic trainers, physical therapists, and everyone else around them. This is not an easy thing to do after becoming so accustomed to handling situations on one’s own.
Also, with all the time to yourself and trying to recover, you begin to feel alienated. Being at practices and doing your warm-ups every day for years, you begin to have a routine. Once you are injured and out of the game, you feel as if you do not know what to do with yourself, and in some cases you can feel as if you have no one. Whether it is your baseball team, soccer team, hockey team, or your coaches; these are the people that you spend most of your time with, and who begin to become your entire life. Along with this comes stress. When you used to have a really stressful day, you could count on your teammates, coaches, or even sprints to take out that stress for you. When what you lean on and are familiar with gets taken away from you, you suddenly need to find other ways to cope with all of these new problems in your life. A lot of athletes treat their injuries with denial, which is never healthy. So here is a list of coping strategies that have been proven to help you if an injury does occur.
1. Be Sad: Feeling is one of the most important parts of the healing process. You can only be strong for so long. So do not allow yourself to just be strong, brave, or macho. Doing this does not help you cope any faster.
2. Deal with what it is: The sooner you accept what happened, the better off you will be in the end. Athlete’s tend to focus on “what was” and “what could have been” instead of what is happening right now. You cannot change what happened no matter how much you want to.
3. Set new goals for yourself (but keep them realistic): Do not try to do more than you are capable of. You need to let yourself heal and regain the strength back in your arm, leg or wherever you are injured. Take baby steps until you are ready to achieve your old goals again.
4. Keep a positive attitude: Negativity slows down the healing process and is never good. You must continue to have a positive attitude throughout the whole process and as Dr. Alan Goldberg stated, “If it is to be, it is up to me.”
5. Take an active part in your healing: Use healing imagery to help you feel less helpless and hopeless throughout your rehab. Do not cut corners, and make it to every rehab, listen to the doctors no matter what they tell you to do or not to do, and be smart about when you are ready to get back out on the field again.
6. Don’t stop practicing and working out: Practice mentally, or if you are able to work out with your injury, do so. Go to your team practices and watch, and mentally rehearse what you would be doing out there; every step, every touch, communication. This keeps the neuromuscular connections activated so it is like you never missed a beat.
7. Use your experience as an athlete in other areas of your life: You may feel as if you have no other skills, if you are forced to retire from your sport because of a very serious injury. However, this is not the case. Every athlete learns and practices success skills such as commitment, dedication, persistence, motivation, time management, and much more. These are some of the greatest set of life skills that you can use in your everyday life, so don’t let them go to waste.
8. Seek out the support of your teammates, coaches, and family: Do not separate yourself from your team. Go to the practices and games no matter how much it hurts you to not be able to play. Isolating yourself will only do more harm to you physically and mentally. Make sure you reach out to all of them when you are in need, they will always be there for you.
9. Seek out a counselor if it gets too bad: Getting the help from a professional is a sign of strength, not weakness, so if you are feeling very miserable and depressed for a period of time, don’t be afraid to seek out the help of a therapist. Talking to someone who can understand is always helpful and can get you back on your feet again.
10. BE PATIENT: Make sure you give your body enough time to heal properly. Do not jump right back into it the day you start to feel a little bit better; this will only slow down your healing process. And as Dr. Alan Goldberg also stated, “go slower, arrive sooner.”