The psychology of sport injury

Athletes train incredibly hard year-round in order to have their bodies in peak physical condition.

But no matter how many hours they spend in the gym or how many miles they run on the track, every athlete is susceptible to injuries that could potentially render them unable to take part in the sport for which they have so much passion.

While it is easy to measure the pain of these injuries in broken bones, torn ligaments and damaged muscles, what is often overlooked is the mental effect that a major injury has on an athlete.

“Athletes I’ve seen that have been injured have come back and are a shell of the player they were before,” said Mario Halapir, coach of the men’s soccer team at Laurier. “Mentally, some people just can’t deal with the fact that they got injured and they’re always afraid of re-injury.”

Jill Tracey, an assistant professor in Laurier’s kinesiology and physical education department who provides sports psychology consulting to the Golden Hawks’ women’s hockey team as well as both curling teams, explained the severity of sports injury.

“When someone gets injured, it’s not just physical, it’s an injury to the entire person, and traditionally we haven’t focused enough on how someone is healing psychologically,” said Tracey.

These psychological issues often carry over into the rehabilitation process, which most people believe is strictly about regaining muscular strength.

However, the psychological aspect of the process is just as important, because an athlete is never truly recovered until he or she is back to normal both physically and mentally.

“We talk about [injury] as part of the inherent risk in sport, but that doesn’t mean that you come in knowing or expecting to get injured … so it’s pretty hard for most people to deal with,” continued Tracey.

Athletes react to injuries in different ways; many struggle through a variety of mental blocks when they get injured.

It is only through overcoming these psychological issues that an athlete can make a complete recovery.

Hardships of an injury

The most immediate mental concern of an injured athlete is the initial shock of the injury.

One second a player is competing in the heat of a game, the next they’re lying on the field, ice or court, suddenly without the function of a part of their body.

“So many thoughts run through your head,” said Josh Bishop, a fourth-year receiver on Laurier’s men’s football team.

Bishop has suffered two major injuries during his time with the Golden Hawks: a hamstring pull in his first year and a pinched nerve in his back this past season.

“I really start to think, ‘is this going to set me back? Are scouts going to start calling me injury-prone?’”

“I also start to think of my parents up in the stands and how worried they must be, and then of course I think about my teammates and start to think, ‘Am I letting them down?’”

The anxiety Bishop is referring to doesn’t stop once the player has been helped off the field. According to Tracey, many athletes go through serious self-doubt throughout their recovery process.

Mentally, some people just can’t deal
with the fact that they got injured
and they’re always afraid of

–Mario Halapir, Laurier men’s soccer coach

“It’s understandable that the athlete is feeling pretty down and pretty anxious,” she said. “They’re anxious about how long they’re going to be out, how severe the injury is, and another big worry is losing fitness and losing their place on the team. That’s not just initial shock, that’s a lot to deal with.”

The athlete also has to deal with the simple fact that they are no longer able to compete in the sport that they are so passionate about and have put so much work into.

“Initially, I think it deflates them completely,” said Halapir. “No competitive athlete wants to miss a minute of training or playing and when you get limited by a serious injury, the initial disappointment of not being able to compete is really hard for people to take.”

The process of rehab itself can also take a massive toll on an athlete’s psyche, as these players are used to a specific training regimen, focused on making them bigger, faster and stronger, and when they sustain an injury they are reduced to the most basic of exercises.

Being sidelined

After an injury athletes go from a regular routine of team-oriented training to spending their time working one-on-one with a trainer in a therapy room.

According to Tracey, this can lead to the athlete feeling isolated from their teammates; and considering the amount of time an athlete spends with their team and how much most players identify themselves with the sport they play, this sudden change can alter a person’s entire demeanour.

“Generally [an athlete] has really close friendships with [his or her] teammates, and then the injury occurs and that person is separated from them,” said Tracey. “That’s really hard for people to deal with…. You might see a total or partial change in their personality. You might see a different person altogether.”

“Obviously, right away, you’re down on yourself,” added Bishop. “The only time I really feel like I’m helping the team is when I’m out there on the field and all I could think about is how much I wanted to be out there battling with the guys.”

The people in an injured athlete’s life play a substantial role in ensuring a full mental recovery.
According to Tracey, the trainers, coaches, teammates, friends and family must all ensure that the injured player never feels alone and still feels as though they are part of the team.

“The support behind me throughout my injury has been huge,” said Laurier quarterback Luke Thompson, who is currently working through rehabilitating a torn ACL that he suffered in the third game of this past season.

“I know if I ever need anything, whether it’s football or rehab or anything about life, the guys, the coaches, or the trainers are going to be there for me.”

Getting back in the game

Once an athlete has completed rehab, their next mental obstacle becomes getting ready to return to game action.

For some, this is as simple as being declared physically ready to play by the doctors, but for others getting back into game shape can be a psychological struggle.

The last time the athlete would have played in a game situation, they sustained the injury that kept them out for so long.

This issue extends to professional sports, where the athletes are given an incredible amount of resources to help with their recovery.

Tracey cites the example of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, who suffered a torn ACL in January of 2006.

“[Palmer] had a very aggressive rehab and physically recovered very well. However, he was very vocal about his difficulty in recovering mentally,” said Tracey.

“He said that even though he was cleared to play and he had gotten back all of his functions, he felt that he was not psychologically ready to play and he actually delayed his return.”

In the past, Palmer’s reluctance to return after he was declared physically ready to play would have brought about the attitude that he was weak in some way.

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Receiver Brian Malott (12) looks over teammate Troy Leach (80) seconds before a trainer runs onto the field during a game against Western.

Photo Credit: Ryan Stewart

However, as the research done in the field of sports psychology becomes more prevalent in the world of elite sports, it has become clear that a player returning from injury before he or she is mentally ready is likely to lead to a recurrence of problems.

If an athlete returns without adequate mental preparation, he or is she has an increased chance of either aggrevating an existing injury or sustaining a new one.

“There’s a natural hesitation, a tentativeness … you risk further injury because if you’re putting extra attention into favouring one thing, you’re more likely to injure something else,” said Tracey.

Stressing that since all athletes respond differently, Tracey noted that some risk reinjury by attempting to perform at their previous level.

“Some people come back and try to do too much. They come back and really go overboard when they first get back [in the game], trying to prove that they are fully recovered.”

For athletes it can be difficult to truly gauge whether or not they have made a full recovery because there is no way to simulate a game situation.

“It’s definitely in the back of your mind,” said Bishop. “You can’t help but think, ‘Am I going to reinjure myself?’ Instead of just focusing on the play itself, you have something else that you’re thinking about.”

A full recovery

While players like Bishop have managed to make full psychological recoveries, sometimes the mental damage caused by an injury is too great for an athlete to handle.

“I’ve seen a few players go through it and everyone reacts differently,” said Halapir, who had 10 knee surgeries during his playing career.

“Some players who go through it end up being a more competitive athlete…. But in others [the injury] is definitely still on their mind when they come back and they just can’t seem to get over it.”

While the work done by athletic therapists remains an integral part of the healing process, focusing on physical rehabilitation alone doesn’t always make for a recovery of the entire person.

According to Tracey, a large part of the mental struggles that athletes go through is due to the fact that many simply don’t talk about psychological difficulties.

“It’s a shame because we would be much better off if more people going through rehab would talk about how hard it is to come back mentally,” she said.

“Talking through the fears and anxieties and working on strategies to deal with them as they may arise is probably the most effective way to overcome those mental blocks.”

Although recognizing the challenges, Bishop remains optimistic that athletes like himself can successfully recover from injuries.

“After taking the time to go through the full healing process, I think it’s possible to come back and be the same guy you were, maybe even better.”