THE IMPACT OF INJURY ON YOUR MENTAL STATE
If you’ve been an athlete for any period of time it’s likely you’ve heard the saying “it’s not if you’ll get injured, it’s when”.
I grew up as a student athlete. As a young adult and now into adulthood, I have continued to consider myself an athlete. Although the sports may have changed over the years and there have been times where due to illness or injury, I have been sidelined, this mentality has persisted.
I was fortunate to be in several very thought-provoking discussions this week regarding injury, mental performance, and even how we view ourselves. As a result, I want to share some of those views as well as those of the sport science institute on how injury can impact your mental state.
While it is usually easy to measure the physical impact and the recovery from injury, the mental side can be a bit harder to gauge.
THE EMOTIONAL COMPONENT TO INJURY
Imagine a time when you were injured. It could be an injury that occurred in sport or even an accident if you are not someone who participates in sport. Can you remember that first thought or emotion that went through your mind? It might have been even faster than the pain depending on how badly you were hurt.
Fear? How bad is this? What is my recovery time? It might have been tied to something bigger like a championship. Pressure. Letting others down. Sponsors. Future performance. Impact on career.
I have been at the racetrack many times and witnessed severe injuries. I have flown in lifeflight with athletes and witnessed the initial conversations of medical professionals, medication being administered, the assessment on the way to the hospital to determine not IF a bone is broken, but how many and the appropriate course of action once the helicopter lands.
Because I was calm enough, I was allowed to stay in the ER, and then later in the room until it was determined surgery was necessary.
Through all this, the rider was most concerned with a couple things. Would he ride again at the same level of competition? How soon would he be able to do this? All this while dealing with a broken pelvis and femur, among other injuries.
Imagine if the doctor had said you will never ride again? The first conversation is often the most important. A doctor could certainly say that it wouldn’t be advisable to compete again but telling a professional athlete that they can’t may be more than they can process while dealing with the injury as well.
The Sport Science Institute lists several emotional reactions to injury. They are:
4. Lack of motivation
7. Changes in appetite
8. Sleep disturbance
It is important to note that these are all normal reactions to injury and that they may be felt at some point or not at all. This is not exhaustive list. These reactions can happen in any order and some can become worse over time.
It is not unusual for athletes to experience depression or anxiety after sustaining an injury. Especially if it is an injury that forces them to be away from their sport for quite some time. The isolation that often comes from injury can make this worse.
1. HAVE A STRATEGY - If you are part of a team have a strategy in place to take care of your injured athletes BEFORE injury occurs. Communicate that to all members of the team.
Do you have a team doctor, athletic trainer, mental performance coach/sports psychologist? Make sure everyone knows what their role is when an athlete is injured. Who is checking in and how often? Do they know what some common warning signs of depression and anxiety? Do you have resources to refer out to for mental health issues like depression, anxiety, substance abuse, gambling, etc?
2. STAY IN THE PRESENT – This is for those who find themselves injured. It is easy to get stuck in a loop of negative self-talk and focus on what you can’t do, especially if your injury keeps you from what you love. I would encourage you to practice mindfulness in order to help calm your central nervous system and relieve stress, but also to help you to not focus on what the future will look like. Things like journaling, meditation, and yoga (if you are able) can help to improve disturbed sleep, calm anger, get all those thoughts out that are circling around. I have found journaling to be especially helpful in stopping repetitive/disruptive thoughts. Aim for the same time every day. Commit to 5 minutes. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy or scripted. Just write down what’s on your mind.
Unfortunately, injury and sport go together. To compete at the highest levels requires a certain amount of risk that there will be an injury at some point. Understanding that there will be a mental component to that is important. Having a plan in place ahead of time in order to manage your emotions sets you up in the best way possible.
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