The Challenges of Returning From an Injury

March 19, 2013 | Mo Skelton

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Returning from an injury is a grueling process that can be physically and mentally challenging. A great example is Derrick Rose's long-awaited return from an ACL injury. The length of his rehab has been the subject of much debate lately. (See How Athletes Have Played After Returning From Major Surgery.)

The Goal

You need to return to your sport at 100%, physically and mentally. You obviously need to be cleared by a doctor, but you must also feel comfortable about naturally exhibiting your skills. If you pull up or hold back, you won't perform at your best and may put yourself at risk for reinjury.

"I'm not coming back until I'm 110%. It's just that I'm not coming back until I'm ready," Rose told USA Today. "I want to be better than I was before, but I'll know when that is better than anyone else." Despite pressure from a coach or teammates or the media, you know your body best. Return only when you are ready. (Check out Recovering From Injury: The Basics.)

The Reality

An athlete who suffers a serious injury knows that everything is about to change. Most try to stay positive and hope for a short recovery, but everyone dreads the rehab process.

It is imperative at this time to have a strong support system, including family, coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, someone who has sustained a similar injury and even a compassionate physician. They can offer reassurance that you won't be derailed from your long-term athletic dreams, and they will keep you on track with your rehab. (See 3 Steps to Coming Back Better From an Injury.)


Every doctor has a protocol and a recovery timetable for each injury and surgery. Their guidelines dictate how much stress may be put on healing tissue at different points in the recovery process; but the guidelines can vary because every athlete and surgical procedure is unique.

Patience is key. Don't look at how someone else has recovered. Just realize how are you getting better every day. Resist the temptation to dispute the advice of your doctor or physical therapist. They are experienced professionals, and they know when you are ready to return to play. You can try to recover like Adrian Peterson, but as Derrick Rose has shown, not all injuries and situations are created equal.

The Feel

Every athlete has a measurable level of activity that makes him or her feel ready and provides the confidence to return. Rose told ESPN that his return is contingent on his ability to dunk in stride. For a pitcher who sustained an elbow injury, it might be throwing a curve ball. For a football player, it might be getting tackled.

The Fear

Many athletes experience some level of fear of reinjury when they return to play. This is a normal part of the recovery process. It's one reason why rehab is done in a progressive format, so you can gradually establish confidence and build upon it. You won't eliminate fear overnight. It takes time to progress to a point where your injury is completely out of your mind.


Attitude is everything. It's important to stay positive despite inevitable moments of frustration. It helps to have a rehab professional who understand the pain and frustration you are experiencing. He or she understands athletes, injuries and the recovery process and can offer an outside perspective on progress toward full recovery.

Getting Better

It's important to take time to develop your game and body. Reevaluate how you approach the game, or train your body in a way that won't affect your injury. For example, if you hurt your knee, work to strengthen your upper body.

The Big Picture

Returning a few weeks or months early will be a non-issue by the end of your career. Look at the long term rather than focusing on frantically getting back to your sport. This will make the rehab process more effective and mentally manageable.

Topics: REHAB
Mo Skelton
- Mo Skelton is a physical therapist at McCurtain Memorial Hospital (Idabel, Okla.) and is the founder of F.A.S.T. Sports Performance. He also serves as...
Mo Skelton
- Mo Skelton is a physical therapist at McCurtain Memorial Hospital (Idabel, Okla.) and is the founder of F.A.S.T. Sports Performance. He also serves as...
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