Applied Sports Psychology for Injury Recovery

Injuries are part of sports, and unfortunately, they are not always avoidable. Learn how sports psychology can help athletes recover and stay mentally tough.

Kevin Ware Injury

You didn't have to follow this year's NCAA Basketball Tournament to be aware of Kevin Ware's gruesome injury. But not only did Ware remain mentally tough, he was able to have a significant motivational impact on his teammates.

Injuries will always be part of sports. Unfortunately, they are not always avoidable. But as Ware proved, athletes can make the most of a bad experience. Want to be as mentally tough as Ware if you're injured? Here's how sports psychology plays a role in injury recovery:

Factors Affecting Reactions to Injury 

Many factors affect how an athlete responds to an injury:

  • Type and severity of the injury
  • Athlete's position/role on the team
  • Time of the season
  • Events or situations
  • History of injury
  • Social support and expectations of others

Normal Reactions to Injury

Depending on your situation, it's normal to experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Negative mindset
  • Emotional outburst
  • Reduced confidence
  • Lack, or overabundance, of motivation
  • Anger or frustration
  • Isolation or depression
  • Internal and external pressure to recover quickly and be back as good as new

There are three typical responses to an injury:

  • You want to know everything possible about the injury: What happened? What type of injury is it? What is the prognosis? What does it look like?
  • A strong emotional reaction and reactive behavior. You might become depressed and sad, or you might get angry and lash out over the smallest thing.
  • Or the opposite: you may react with a positive outlook and use effective means of coping with the situation—for example, you might think the injury will make you stronger and mentally tougher and look forward to doing everything you need to do to recover successfully and get back to playing.

Reactions to Watch Out For

Many things can signal a poor response to an injury. If you notice these in yourself or a teammate, you or your teammate might need some help.

  • Feeling angry and confused
  • Becoming obsessed with determining when you can return to play
  • Denying the impact of the injury and the rehab and recovery needed to get better
  • Feeling guilty about letting the team or coach down
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Trying to come back too soon and experiencing re-injury
  • Extreme negative thinking or self-talk (saying you will never recover or get back to who or what you were before)
  • Withdrawing from teammates and significant others

The last reaction, isolation, is important to pay attention to. After an injury, especially a serious one, some athletes feel a loss of identity. They wonder who they are and whether they are truly athletes if they cannot be physically active and part of a team.

If such strong negative reactions are experienced, it's important to get the athlete some help from an applied sports psychology professional (see the Association of Sport Psychology's list of certified consultants).

Sport Psychology and Support Needed During Rehab/Recovery

There are three phases of rehab and recovery, each with a different focus. (Or are there 5 Stages of Injury Recovery?)

Injury phase. After experiencing an injury, athletes need help dealing with their emotions. It helps to give them some education about their injury and the process of recovery.

Rehabilitation and recovery phase. Athletes move into taking care of the injury and doing the rehab necessary to recover. In this phase, they benefit from help dealing with pain, staying motivated and adhering to their rehab process.

Return to activity phase. When athletes try to return to full activity, they need help setting goals, dealing with setbacks, reducing anxiety or fear of re-injury, and building confidence in their ability to play and perform.

Depending on the phase, or in many cases throughout the phases, the following applied sports psychology strategies can help athletes get through the injury:

  • Goal setting
  • Confidence building
  • Working on self-talk and mindset
  • Increasing social support (especially if they are isolating themselves and withdrawing)
  • Working on attitude, outlook, and expectations
  • Pain management strategies
  • Imagery
  • Motivational strategies
  • Coping with setbacks
  • Using other injured athletes for inspiration

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock