A Coach’s and Athlete’s Guide to
Rebounding from Injury
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 SPORT IN YOUR LIFE
- #1 SENSE OF IDENTITY – If you are a serious athlete and have been competing long enough, then you will soon come to see yourself in terms of your sport. It’s who you are and what you do! With your long-term investment and commitment of time, energy and pain over the years, your sport has become an integral part of who you are. It’s how you see yourself and how others see you. When you compete, this sense of identity further expands to include the role that you play on your team both tactically and socially/emotionally.
- #2 MAJOR SOURCE OF SELF-ESTEEM – For most serious athletes, your sport provides you with a continual source of positive reinforcement and feedback. There is enjoyment and self-satisfaction in mastering new skills, overcoming ever more challenging obstacles and progressively getting stronger and better. Furthermore, the outside recognition of your accomplishments by friends, family and your community stoke the fires of self-esteem so that they burn even brighter within you. Having a great game, race or match feels fantastic and provides concrete evidence that your hard work is paying off and that you are “special”.
- #3 A CONSTRUCTIVE WAY TO COPE WITH STRESS – There is absolutely no question that physical exercise helps you better handle stress of all kinds. Individuals who have no physical outlets in their life tend to internalize their stress. Since they have no way of getting it out of their bodies, the stress stays there and may emerge as stomach problems, headaches, or other physical symptoms. Furthermore, many athletes discover that their involvement in their sport is a constructive way to escape from the stress of family problems. Their sport offers them a safe and constructive way to channel their frustrations and aggression. Along these same lines, your sport can provide you as an athlete with a vehicle to a better life. If you’re good enough, your sport can get you a college scholarship and open up a door that might have been otherwise closed to you.
THE CONSEQUENCES OF 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.
The other significant feeling that accompanies these losses is a sense of alienation and isolation. Robbed of the limelight, unable to fulfill your old role on the team, and unable to even practice with the rest of the team, it’s common to struggle with feelings that now you are suddenly very different and that you no longer fit in.
So what does all this loss mean to you as an athlete or to your coach?
If you want to speed up the rehab process as much as possible, then you need to EXPECT certain feelings and behaviors to emerge as a result of your injury. These feelings and behaviors are absolutely NORMAL and a natural part of successfully coping. As with any kinds of loss, the athlete may go through a number of stages directly related to mourning. Some professionals feel that these stages parallel Kubler-Ross’s five stages in her discussion of death and dying: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance.
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:
- #1 BE SAD – Allow yourself to mourn and feel whatever loss you are experiencing. Being “macho” or “strong” by burying or hiding your feelings in this situation will interfere with you effectively coping and recovering. Your emotions are an important part of the healing process. Feeling is part of healing!
- #2 DEAL WITH WHAT IS – Injured athletes have a tendency to focus on the “could ‘a beens”, “should ‘a beens” and “if only” they hadn’t gotten hurt. Spending too much time and energy on this will take away from you successfully moving through the recovery process. Yes, it’s thrown a monkey wrench into all your plans and dreams. Unfortunately, this is your reality right now and you have to allow yourself to deal with what is!
- #3 SET NEW, MORE REALISTIC GOALS FOR YOURSELF – As you begin the recovery process, you may very well have to learn to measure your successes very differently than ever before, perhaps in millimeters now instead of meters the way it was before your injury. It may mean that you also have to start all over again back at “square one” to build up arm or leg strength and endurance. Keep focused on your NEW goals and leave the old ones in the PAST for now where they belong. Once you’ve come all the way back from your injury you can start entertaining your old goals.
- #4 MAINTAIN A POSITIVE ATTITUDE, NO MATTER WHAT – As difficult as this will be, try to stay as positive as possible. Understand that “IF IT IS TO BE, IT IS UP TO ME.” In other words, your attitude and outlook is ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING! When positive, your attitude can speed up the healing process and lessen the emotional pain that you have to go through. However, when you’re negative you’ll slow the rehab process down to a screeching halt and make yourself miserable in the process. It’s all up to you. Avoid being negative because nothing good ever comes from negativity.
- #5 TAKE AN ACTIVE PART IN YOUR HEALING – Be conscientious about your physical therapy. Follow the doctor’s advice closely. Don’t cut corners. Work as hard with your rehab as you did in your training. In addition, practice using healing imagery on a daily basis. If you’re recovering from a broken bone or separated shoulder, spend 5-10 minutes imagining that bone or shoulder beginning to heal. “See” in your mind’s eye a healthy supply of red blood cells surrounding that area and facilitating the mending process. I can’t scientifically guarantee that this will speed up your healing. However, I can promise you that this will make you feel less helpless, more in control and much more positive.
- #6 CONTINUE TO “PRACTICE” AND “WORK OUT”. If your injury allows you to still continue any part of your training, do so! If not, “practice” mentally. Use mental rehearsal on a daily basis (5 -10 minutes at a time) to see, hear and feel yourself performing in your sport, executing flawlessly with perfect timing. Take this time to also mentally work on your weaknesses. You might even want to show up for some of the regular practices and mentally rehearse what the team is doing while they’re working out. Regular mental rehearsal of your skills will keep the neuromuscular connections activated so that when you are able to actually begin physical practice, you will not have lost as much.
- #7 SEEK OUT THE SUPPORT OF YOUR TEAMMATES – Participate in team functions. FIGHT the urge to isolate yourself. You may feel worthless and suddenly different, but chances are good that you’re probably the ONLY one on the team that shares that opinion. The worst thing for you to do when you’re in a vulnerable state is to separate yourself from your group. Make a serious effort to reach out rather than pull in!
- #8 THINK ABOUT HOW TO USE YOUR SPORTS LEARNING AND EXPERIENCE IN OTHER AREAS OF YOUR LIFE – If your injury forces you into permanent retirement, you may feel that you have little to no skills or expertise that you can transfer from your sport to other endeavors. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH! To excel as an athlete in your sport you have gradually developed over time some pretty powerful success skills like dedication, commitment, persistence, motivation, the ability to manage time, “reboundability” from setbacks and failures, as well as a whole host of other valuable LIFE skills. These success skills can be readily harnessed to other challenges that you pursue in your life outside of sports. Don’t think for a minute that much of what you’ve learned and mastered is irrelevant to the “real world.”
- #9 IF NECESSARY, SEEK OUT A COUNSELOR– If you are really depressed for an extended period of time, have lost interest in things that used to excite you, have noticed that your sleep and eating patterns have changed and/or you are having suicidal thoughts, seek professional help immediately! If you’re having these kinds of symptoms, this means that you have really lost perspective and you are in need of some qualified, outside support. Seeking out the help of a professional therapist or counselor is NOT a sign of weakness. On the contrary, it’s a sign of strength.
- #10 BE PATIENT– If your injury is temporary, allow yourself enough time to heal properly. If you’re over anxious to get back to the court, field, course or pool and rush the healing process, then you may set yourself up for another, more serious injury which may cost you even more time. Rushing the healing process so that you can get back a week or two earlier is “penny wise, pound foolish.” That is, you might get back a few days earlier, but because you didn’t wait those extra days to heal properly, you may end up developing a chronic injury that could keep you out for extra weeks and even months. Remember, sometimes the fastest way of coming back is the slowest. GO SLOWER, ARRIVE SOONER!
COACHING STRATEGIES FOR HELPING THE INJURED ATHLETE COPE:
- #1 BE EMPATHIC– Let your athletes know that YOU understand what THEY are feeling and going through. Understand where their anger, frustration and disappointment comes from and allow them time to mourn. Do NOT expect them to just “suck it up”, “shake it off” and “be strong!” Instead, let them have their feelings without indulging them in self-pity. One of the more powerful things that you can do as a coach is to care enough about your player so that you take the time to really understand what they are feeling and going through. Your genuine empathy and caring will go a long way towards strengthening the coach-athlete relationship and aiding the healing process.
- #2 WORK WITH THEIR SELF-ESTEEM – Understand that the injured athlete has just suffered a major blow to his feelings of self-worth and is therefore feeling quite vulnerable. Let him know in BOTH your actions and words that you still value him as a person, NOT just as an athlete. Do NOT avoid or act disinterested in that individual. Remember, it is YOUR responsibility to reach out to him, not vice versa. You are the “qualified adult and professional.” You must act like one. Far too many coaches completely ignore the injured athlete, which ends up truly destroying his already shaky self-esteem.
- #3 GIVE THEM A ROLE ON THE TEAM– Help the injured athlete fight the their feelings of worthlessness and role confusion by giving them another job on the team. Assign them as an “assistant coach” or consultant into team functioning. Seek out their opinion and “advice” during practices or competitions. In fact, your injured athlete may have some valuable insight into the inner workings of the team. Actively utilize their “expertise” in this area. Make them feel important and that they still have a vital role to play on the squad.
- #4 DON’T ALLOW THE ATHLETE TO ISOLATE HIMSELF FROM THE TEAM – Insist that the athlete continue to function as an important member/part of the team. Assign other athletes on the squad to monitor the injured athlete’s involvement and to intervene whenever that athlete begins to withdraw and/or isolate him/herself. As mentioned previously, take it upon yourself as the coach to actively reach out to this individual. The coach can have a powerfully positive impact on the injured athlete’s feelings of inclusion. Be there for him and do not allow him to withdraw.
- #5 LET YOUR ATHLETE KNOW THAT YOU CARE – Increase contact and communication with the injured athlete. Call them if they are unable to show up at practice. If they’re recovering from surgery, visit them in the hospital. A little of your time at this point in the recovery process will dramatically help ease the emotional pain that the athlete is experiencing.
- #6 WHEN APPROPRIATE, EXPECT THE ATHLETE TO “PRACTICE” – Whether it’s limited physical or purely mental, let the injured athlete know that you expect him/her to continue their training, however modified. When possible, assign them a special workout that fits the limitation of their injury. Take an interest in their “training” and regularly check on how it’s going.
- #7 HELP THE ATHLETE GET IN TOUCH WITH OTHER AREAS OF PERSONAL STRENGTH – Help the injured athlete understand that excelling in her sport demands a tremendous amount of success and life skills that she has already developed and that she can learn to transfer to other areas in her life. Clearly spell out for her what these areas are and help her begin to see their application in other arenas.
- #8 IF THE ATHLETE’S DEPRESSION DOES NOT LIFT OR IF THERE ARE WARNING SIGNS IMMEDIATELY REFER HIM/HER TO A PROFESSIONAL– If the athlete is seriously depressed (has lost interest in activities, shows changes in eating and sleeping habits, or is having suicidal thoughts or feelings), it is critically important that you refer them for professional counseling. If you are particularly concerned about your athlete, you may need to play a forceful, advocate role where you enlist the parents’ aid in helping their son or daughter get the professional help that is needed.
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 then done in the beginning, discipline yourself to maintain a positive focus on your performance.
Remember also that if your fear of re-injury does not diminish, or if your performance after the injury is significantly sub-par, I hope you will contact me at 413-549-1085 to talk about how I might be able to help!