“It does not matter how many times you get knocked down, but how many times you get up”
Most athletes will have to deal with an injury at some point in their career. Psychological and emotional reactions to athletic injuries will vary depending on the circumstances. Factors that seem to influence responses include severity or type of injury and the coping mechanisms used by the athlete.
Initial Emotions Related to Athletic Injury
Some of the first emotional reactions to getting injured can be shock, anxiety, and denial. Sudden, unexpected, and traumatic injuries can be associated with a tremendous amount of shock. Some graphic examples of traumatic injuries can be found on YouTube. Part of the shock may be related to the instant knowledge that the injury is serious and maybe even season- or career-ending. Athletes can also be flooded with anxiety as the person wonders instantly about pain and the question of “when will I play again?” or even “what if I don’t play again?” A sudden injury can be very different than an injury that comes on slowly and is not traumatic.
The athlete who has a slow onset injury may feel some pain or a twinge that doesn’t quite feel right. Some will keep training, denying there is discomfort, possibly even hoping it will go away or resolve on its own. Have you ever done this? This is one way to cope, even if it isn’t the best, and most athletes do it at one point. Sometimes injuries go away or heal with no interventions. But if not, and the injury continues, there may be other emotional reactions. These can include disappointment, anger, and frustration.
Athletes and Coping Reactions
Other emotional or psychological reactions to injury can include depression and anger. There are many individual differences for how athletes might cope with injury and rehabilitation. Some athletes put a lot of focus on themselves, possibly blaming themselves for the injury in some way. This internal focus can be associated with guilt, sadness, and even depression. But others may be more outwardly directed with their emotions and become angry, either at themselves or the circumstances in which the injury occurred. They might be mad at family, friends, coaches, and teammates. It will be important that these types of reactions are discussed throughout the injury rehabilitation process in order to find ways to support the person. This can help the athlete know that managing anxiety or depression is important in order to set up the maximum therapeutic environment to heal. Remember there are both emotional and physical factors that affect rehabilitation.
Positive Emotions and Injury Rehabilitation
Most athletes will eventually resolve some of the more challenging emotional reactions they experience and move further toward acknowledgement and adjustment reactions. At some point most athletes typically come to acknowledge the injury and adjust to the situation. Others may even accept their injury and circumstance and deliberately focus on rehabilitation and prepare to train and compete again. Research has indicated that those people who accept their pain are best able to tolerate pain.
Thus, those athletes that put their focus and energy into getting better and moving forward rather than on being angry or frustrated with the injury may manage pain better. This is a positive redirection of focus and energy.
When Are Emotional Reactions a Barrier to Recovery?
Significant feelings of depression or expressions of feelings less hopeful are signs the athlete may need more emotional support from a sport or clinical psychologist. These athletes may be less motivated to the goals of rehabilitation or even wonder what the purpose of treatment is. Other signs that more support is needed might be unresolved anger at themselves or others or heightened anxiety about re-injury as they get ready to return to their training. These are not signs of weakness but an indication that this particular athlete may need more support to cope well. Remember that it is common to cycle through all of these emotions and still do well. Support can make the process more manageable.