Unfortunately, statistics show that at some point in their career, all athletes suffer a significant injury. How you process and adapt to an injury plays a major role in the overall impact it has on your season and career. (See Basics of Recovering from an Injury.)
After an athlete is hurt, he or she passes through five stages when dealing with it. If you can recognize and work through the stages, it will make you better in the long run. With all the advances in sports science and injury prevention, hopefully you’ll be an exception to the rule and never suffer an injury. But just in case, it never hurts to be prepared. Protect yourself and your future career by understanding the impact an injury can have on you mentally as an athlete.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross created a model for the cycle of grief people experience in hospice facilities. But her model can be applied to any change management situation. And it’s safe to say that for a competitive athlete, an injury is a major change.
Remember that the stages described below are natural. They don’t necessarily apply to everyone, or even always in the same order. However, according to Ross, an individual will always experience at least two stages and sometimes a stage will be repeated. (Learn more about Injury Rehab.)
When you first experience the shock of an injury, you immediately begin an internal dialogue in which you try to convince yourself that it’s not that bad. You probably try to run, jump or throw, a typical form of denial that often makes matters worse. Another common thought is that the injury will ease off in a couple of days. If you continue to train, this can also aggravate the injury. In extreme cases, athletes pretend there is no injury.
Often fueled by thoughts like “Why me?” or “Why now?” you direct anger at yourself for a mistake that caused the injury, or at someone else you think is responsible. Perhaps you got hurt during a critical part of the season. It’s natural to feel angry. You might even direct it at family and friends, because they don’t understand the sense of loss you have when training stops. Platitudes definitely worsen the situation.
In a sense, this is an extension of denial. You accept the injury and endure the pain, but you try to ignore it or overcome it by adapting your training to avoid the injured area. This usually leads to two things: your performance drops; and your body gets out of balance by overcompensating for the injury. You are bargaining with your body. And if your adaptations become embedded in your athletic performance, it makes them more difficult to correct.
If your training and goals were well planned out, your injury can have a greater impact, because it’s more obvious what you’re missing. Grieving over your enforced hiatus can lead to a form of depression, at least certainly a distinct sadness. You might feel like the entire season is lost, or that rehab will never get you back to 100%, or, worst case, that you will fall behind your opponents and never completely recover.
For rehabilitation to be effective, this is the stage you need to get to. The preceding stages are completely natural and understandable. Recognize them for what they are. Just saying that you have to “pull yourself together” is a form of denial. Work through that and other stages by talking to coaches, therapists and teammates. They can help get you to the point of acceptance. If you achieve acceptance early, you can start working on your rehab right away, even while you are going through the other stages.
Getting to a Positive Attitude
Taking positive action will get you to acceptance sooner. No matter how difficult it is, a positive attitude is your best strategy on the road to recovery. Understanding the natural stages you are going through is the first step. No one escapes unscathed from at least some of the stages; they cannot be avoided. Getting back on track takes a dedicated attitude and a commitment to excellence.