Injuries are painful. Injuries are unfortunate. Injuries never happen at a good time. Injuries can place fear in the psyches of even the strongest and most well-adjusted athletes. Even after the injury heals, the psychological effects can linger long past the time the doctor gives the "all-clear" medically to return to play. While many athletes return to full speed and strength, some battle anxiety, low self-confidence and identity issues going through the injury and recovery process.
Fortunately, the field of sport psychology is doing some impressive work in the realm of injury recovery, working with athletes to address their fears and concerns and getting them back in action smoothly. And to be honest, these are some of my favorite cases to work with. I myself as a runner have worked through numerous fractures and strains, and the mental toll they take is not to be underestimated.
Today I want to introduce a concept much less talked about than rehab in popular sport psychology lore: injury prevention harnessing the power of the mind and the self. Perhaps if we coped better psychologically with the demands of life and training, some injuries could be avoided. Though some injuries are unavoidable—notably in contact sports—use of psychological techniques can be applied to help an athlete minimize vulnerability. Intrigued yet? Then read on.
A Heathy, Balanced Self-Concept and Identity
It's easier to back off when something is hurting if you have more going for you than just sports. Athletes who generally gain their sense of identity and self-worth as just competitors may set themselves up for overuse injury, fatigue and poor decision-making in both training and during games. Instead of taking a stance of winning at all (physical and social) costs or perfectionism, I always suggest athletes maintain other interests and look at themselves for who they are and what they value instead of what they do. Remember, you're not a soccer player, or swimmer or gymnast, but a person. Your sport is what you do instead of who you are.
Adequate Stress Management
Excess stress leads to excess muscle tension, which, to put it simply, puts your muscles and joints in a compromised position and may inhibit full range of motion and explosiveness. And that's just the beginning. Stress affects your ability to concentrate and can lead to a decrease in awareness. It also slows the recovery process. Personally, nearly every injury I've sustained over my career happened during a stressful time. A relaxed athlete is a healthy and happy athlete. Practicing simple stress management techniques such as progressive relaxation, breathing and focusing on the positive will not only help you perform, but may keep you healthier.
Trying to do too much too soon opens the door to injury by either causing overtraining or attempting skills too advanced for your level of development. Taking an accurate assessment of your current fitness and abilities is paramount to progressing optimally and allowing your body to adapt and improve. For example, if a marathon runner has a personal best of 3:15, then trying to run 2:45 in their next race is likely too aggressive a goal. Perhaps this athlete can run that time later; each season she or he should work on reducing their time in smaller increments, such as a 3:07-3:10, instead of going for the aggressive time drop within one race's time.
Every athlete is encouraged to set short-term goals based on where they are currently. This will help you progress safely. I also recommend setting a range of goals to reduce pressure and revisiting these goals often. Also, working with coaches and sport psychology professionals may help an athlete dial in their training and stay healthy in the process. With wellness, comes achievement in sports and life. Why get hurt if you don't have to?
- Mental Warm-Up: How to Build Confidence Before a Game
- How to Build a Foundation of Mental Toughness
- Boost Self-Confidence With 5 Sports Psychology Tips
- Applied Sports Psychology for Injury Recovery