Psychological Effects of Injury on Athletes
Written by Emerald Damge, Assistant Athletic Trainer, ThunderRidge High School
Treating physical injuries in athletes have always come with their own unique challenges; every athlete and injury is different, but what sort of challenges are faced with the mental and emotional effects of these unique injuries and individuals? And how do we treat this side of injury as athletic trainers?
“Psychological response to injury” is the mental aspect of how an athlete copes and comes to term with the injury sustained and its treatment. This process is handled differently for every athlete. What could be disastrous for some, may be viewed as an opportunity to be courageous to others, or an excuse to not work as hard.
Reactions can occur in three major phases. The first is during the injury, when the injury is sustained or diagnosed. The second phase is while the athlete is progressing through rehabilitation of the injury. If rehab is slow or there are setbacks during the process, it can lead to negative thoughts and mindsets on how the injury is healing. The final phase is during return-to-play or career termination. While most athletes will be excited to return to their sport, some may think that they are too far behind the team or that the relationship between them and their teammates is strained.
What are the emotional responses to look out for? Athletes can display a variety of emotions. They fear that they may not return to full fitness or fear re-injury. Anxiety may be displayed over loss of position or status within the team. Depression, isolation, anger and frustration with the situation or slow progress, can be directed at themselves or others. However increased motivation and confidence may also be displayed after the athlete accepts the current situation.
One of the most important steps we can take to help our athletes is to establish a strong relationship in the beginning. Giving athletes a comfortable, safe place to come to increases the chance of them opening up and communicating what they are feeling and what they need, in order to be successful through their treatment.
As our athletes begin the rehabilitation phase, it is important to continue open communication. Let them know what each new phase is, how they are progressing, and what to expect in each phase leading up to full clearance. Keep athletes involved, work with them to set long term and short term goals, enforce positive thinking and self-talk, and explain the benefits of using imagery to focus on the final outcome.
Another area where athletic trainers can increase positive focus is in the rehab protocol itself. Focus on sport-related drills and activities and allow athletes to perform rehab at practices with the team. In the end, these little details will help our athletes feel involved with the team, prevent loss of identity, and keep them motivated to return.