Has an Injury Knocked You Off Track?
A Guide to Rebounding from Injury for Coaches and Athletes
You’ve been involved in your sport longer than you can remember. As you’ve grown, so have your strength, endurance and technique. You’ve busted your butt to become as good in your sport as possible and a force to be reckoned with in competitions. Known for your work ethic, consistency and ability to come through in the clutch, you’ve been the one your team has always been able to depend on in crunch time. You live to practice and perform. You have a passion to compete. You flat out love your sport. It’s who you are!
Then the unthinkable happens! It seems to have slowly snuck up on you. It’s not like there was any major injury or anything. You didn’t really feel anything pull, pop or break. Perhaps it might have been a lot easier and more straightforward to deal with if you had experienced that. No, this was quite a bit more insidious. After a big competition you noticed some pain and tenderness in your shoulder. “No problem,” you thought to yourself. You’ve dealt with this stuff before. You quickly dismiss it as nothing. The next day in practice you notice that your shoulder still feels tight and sore. “No big deal!” You try to ignore it and push through the pain. When practice ends your shoulder is throbbing and you start realizing that perhaps you were a bit foolish to have forced yourself to work through the pain. That night, when you can’t even lift your arm to brush your teeth, you start to get worried for the first time.
Seeing a sports medicine specialist confirms your worst fears. Your shoulder is really bad and he says that you have to be out of action for at least two to three months! He claims that you have some form of tendonitis or maybe some potential rotator cuff problems, but that’s all Greek to you. He doesn’t really know how long this is going to take, but what he says next, really gets your attention. Unless you take care of that shoulder and give it enough rest, you may risk doing some permanent damage. What does that mean you ask? He tells you that if you continue to play through the pain, that you may be jeopardizing your athletic career! Is he crazy? Is he really telling me that I may never play again? How could that possibly be! Is this guy a quack or what? How could I even survive without my daily dose of this sport?
If you’re a serious athlete and have ever had an experience with an injury, then you KNOW that the physical hurt you feel is only one VERY small part of the overall pain that you have to go through in the rehab process.
The mental pain caused by your injury and the temporary or permanent loss of your sport can be far more devastating than the strained or torn ligaments, pulled muscles, ripped cartilage or broken bones. Unless this type of pain is directly addressed and “treated”, your overall recovery will be slow and incomplete.
Coaches and parents who are sensitive to the issues of the injured athlete help speed up the rehab process and significantly lessen the mental anguish that the athlete must struggle with.
Coaches and parents who are insensitive to these very critical issues, cause further harm to the athlete and may compromise the healing process.
To better understand what happens when an athlete is kept out of action because of an injury, it’s important to briefly examine the three major functions that sport plays in the athlete’s life.
The function of sports in your life
The Consequences of an Injury
So what happens when you’re suddenly sidelined by an injury?
You become overwhelmed by a variety of internal and external losses.
If the injury is significant enough to keep you out of commission for a long enough time, the first thing that you can lose is your identity as an athlete and team member. You start to question who you are if you’re not constantly in the pool, out on the field, course or court practicing and competing in your sport.
An Olympic gymnast permanently sidelined from her sport because of a career-ending injury put it quite clearly. “I’ve been doing gymnastics since I was 6 years old. It’s all I know. It’s who I am and what I do. If I’m not a gymnast then who am I really”?
Without your sport, with its’ frequent practices and competitions, you suddenly have a vacuum in your sense of self that you have to try to fill. This is only less extreme if you have been able to expand your involvement into other activities in other areas of your life. Unfortunately, most serious athletes commit so much of their free time to excelling in their sport that other, non-athletic activities are virtually impossible.
This feeling of “who am I without my sport” is compounded by the fact that your injury has suddenly changed your identity and place on the team! You are no longer the leader, workhorse or clutch performer. Now your position is on the deck, bench, or sidelines with the coach and your role on the team is suddenly unclear and questionable!
There are two other significant losses: First, you lose your physical health and sense of invincibility. Many athletes are used to being independent and relying upon their bodies to respond as trained and directed. With the injury, you have to face that your body has somehow failed you. Furthermore, injuries frequently make you dependent upon others, i.e. doctors, trainers, physical therapists, etc. Most athletes have a strong independent streak and hate having to depend on anyone other than themselves.
Second, you lose a major source of your self-esteem. If you get confidence from being faster than everyone else, hitting the ball harder, throwing touchdowns or shutting an opposing player down, then you’ll get precious few good feelings from standing on the sidelines helplessly watching the action. Suddenly, you’re plagued with self-doubts and have to struggle with questions of your own self-worth. If you’re not pushing others in practice, working hard on your game, and helping your team in competitions, then you begin to wonder what real value you might have on the team? For many athletes this is probably the hardest part of their injury. It’s a huge blow! Suddenly, slower or weaker athletes are taking your place and doing what you should be doing, but can no longer do.
Many athletes first meet their injury with outright denial. They may downplay or ignore the seriousness of the injury, falsely believing that everything’s O.K. They may continue to train through the injury which only makes things worse. Frequently the injury is often accompanied by feelings of intense anger.
The athlete may adopt a “why me, why now” attitude and act hostile and resentful to coaches, teammates, parents and friends. Some athletes then get into an internal bargaining with themselves, i.e. “if I do this and that, then maybe I’ll be able to get back out there”. At some point in this whole process, depression may set in as the athlete comes to directly realize the nature and seriousness of his/her injury and loss. This may entail a loss of interest in or withdrawal from once favored activities, sleep and eating disturbances (sleeping too much/insomnia, overeating/loss of appetite), low energy and, in the most extreme cases, suicidal thoughts and feelings. At the end of this stage, the athlete finally comes to accept his/her situation and makes the best of it.
So what is the best way to handle injury so that the mental pain is minimized?
Healthy strategies for athletes coping with injuries
Coaching strategies for helping the injured athlete cope
Athletic injury, whether temporary or permanent, is and always will be a painfully disruptive and uncontrollable interruption in an athlete’s life. If you follow some of the guidelines put forth in this article you can speed up the rehab process and lessen the emotional pain that normally accompanies most athletic injuries. Keep in mind though that the rehab process is more often times than not very slow and painful.
Understand also that when you as an athlete first get back out there on the field or court, you will naturally be preoccupied with worries about hurting yourself again. Don’t be alarmed by this. Fear of re-injury is absolutely normal. It’s also pretty common for the recently recovered athlete to find herself mentally replaying the injury over and over again in her mind’s eye. This tendency to focus on “what you are afraid will happen” will distract you from the task at hand and leave you performing physically tight. In this condition, you’re actually far more vulnerable to re-injury! To counteract this natural tendency, discipline yourself to concentrate on what you WANT to have happen, NOT what you’re afraid will. Focus on what you need to do in order to execute perfectly. While this may be far easier said than done in the beginning, discipline yourself to maintain a positive focus on your performance.