Experiencing an injury from time to time in sports is a common occurrence and it happens as often as achieving new PRs or doing well in a competition. However, unlike the elation experienced with a new personal record or the validation felt from a competition, an injury is a complete downer. By becoming aware of the different psychological reactions to injury, we can better arm ourselves for a smoother, less stressful recovery period that will make us stronger and wiser in the end.
1.) Denial: This can be a very counter-productive stage. The more we love our sport, the more likely we are to underplay our injuries or ignore them because we don’t want to deal with the possibility of having to take time off and time away from training. There can be a sense that we will lose our identity if we are unable to continue, or a sense of despair from not knowing what to do with our time away. Therefore, we are likely to try and push through the pain and continue training while underplaying and ignoring our symptoms. Denying an injury at its onset and continuing to train, invariably leads to longer recovery times. In addition, denial delays a diagnosis and the ability to begin treatment. It is not uncommon to deny the significance of the symptoms of an injury, and even rationalize them as the soreness and fatigue we have after a good workout. Undeniably though, soreness and fatigue are much different symptoms than pain that impairs proper movement, swelling, persistent pain, sharp pain, asymmetrical or localized pain, and chronic fatigue or weakness. These types of symptoms are indicative of an injury and it is important to seek out medical help to get a proper diagnosis so that you can gain a better understanding of what you’re up against and how it can be treated. The final facet of denial is wanting to return-to-play too quickly. By denying the time it will take to fully heal, major set backs and re-injury will certainly occur. Being aware of what your denial behavior looks like will save you time in the end.
2.) Anger: We often become angry at ourselves or angry at those around us when an injury occurs. We can feel like we’ve lost something, like our training was for naught. We even forget why we’re doing what we’re doing. There’s a lot of frustration during this stage and you may even say things like “I’m never doing this again”, “I’m done with this”, ‘What’s the point anyway?!” These are normal responses that also highlight how much you actually love your sport. You wouldn’t be so frustrated or angry otherwise. This is a good time to use that energy and that passion and redirect it towards getting a clear diagnosis and a recovery plan that will get you back on track. Instead of focusing on the things you can’t do, focus on the things you can. We all have weak points that we can train while recovering from an injury. Remaining disciplined in the midst of turmoil will only make you stronger in the end. This can be a true practice in patience.
3.) Bargaining: We’ll foam roll, smash the lacrosse ball into every trigger point in our bodies, hang up side down and drink a cocktail of herbal remedies made of elk antlers and theanine, trying to bargain with the gods that if we do all of these things our injury will heal and we’ll be ready for this weekend’s competition. Most of the bargaining we do with ourselves is short term, superficial and often not in line with what our diagnosis and healing times really are. Short-term bargaining usually sounds like this in our heads: “I’ll go to a stretch class tonight so my calf won’t be so tight. That way, I’ll be able to do the box jumps and double-unders, with the two-mile-run workout tomorrow.” The reality could be that the injury is Achille’s tendinosis which requires a significant amount soft-tissue work, a rehab exercise plan, and a good period of time unloading. This type of bargaining leads to a state of chronic injury or re-injury, while never fully recovering. When we become aware of our bargaining behaviors/reactions we can redirect ourselves to becoming clear about our injury, diagnosis and treatment plan, and begin to make long-term, healthy bargains with ourselves. As in the example above, knowing how Achille’s tendinosis can be treated we can make a bargain that sounds more like this: “If I can get pain free again and return to activity in 6 weeks I’ll continue to do my rehab exercises 3 x per week, build in rest and recovery into my training, and make regular visits for soft-tissue work so that I can maintain my active lifestyle.”
4.) Depression: Knowing that you may have to take time away from something you love, or modify your training can bring about depression. For many of us there is a huge social aspect to participating in our chosen sports. It is our time to be around like-minded people and further fuel our passion for something. Seeing our friends on Facebook continue to enjoy what we cannot, due to injury, can sometimes compound the social isolation we may feel. Finding different ways to stay connected can help offset these feelings. Getting involved by volunteering at a competition, taking pictures for others, and helping someone else achieve their goals by cheering them on, can be extremely rewarding. Curbing depression is critical to helping you stay the course through recovery. Staying fit and healthy in whatever way you can, while also taking some time to look at other things in your life that keep you engaged and interested, will buffer you from depression. It makes such a difference when you direct your mental space to other positive outlets, sports, or hobbies that are in line with your healing process.
5.) Acceptance: This is the step at which we want arrive as quickly as possible. The better we understand our psychological reactions to injury, the faster we can achieve acceptance. Accepting that we’re injured leads to the understanding that it will take time to heal, and only then can the injury finally be treated and managed appropriately. A matter-of-fact attitude develops with acceptance. The realization is that anyone who is trying to reach their maximum potential at their sport will run into injury. You learn to deal with it and move on. Over time you become more expert at dealing with your own reactions and accept injury for what it is: an opportunity for us to learn and improve ourselves.