Sports!: Serious Sports Injuries Require Mental Rehab Too

I just returned from three days of work with a junior ski racing program in Canada. During my visit, I met three young athletes (all female) who had sustained serious injuries. One 12-year-old suffered tib-fib fractures and was going to be in a full-length cast for eight weeks. A 15-year-old who is one of Canada’s top young skiers just tore her ACL and was going into surgery this week.

I also had the good fortune to meet and ski with Canadian National Team member Larisa Yurkiw. In 2009, Larisa had been on the brink of stardom, having scored many times on the World Cup (including winning the DH portion of a combined event) and then blew out her knee. But to say that Larisa blew out her knee is like saying that the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 was a little tremor. In fact, Larisa tore her ACL, MCL, patellar tendon, and the lateral and medial meniscus  of her left knee, pretty much a perfect storm of knee injuries. Remarkably, after a two-year recovery, Larisa won a Nor-Am GS in December and is currently in Europe racing.

Though I don’t know the statistics on serious injuries among young athletes in all sports, I’m going to figure that a substantial number sustain a career-threatening injury at some point in their careers. Also, as the author of two books on the psychology of injury, I regularly work with athletes of all sorts helping them recover and return to their sport better than ever. Finally, having avoided injury during my own athletic career, I tore up and had surgery on my shoulder a few years ago while working with a group of athletes in Chile and finally learned first hand how difficult recovering from a serious injury can be.

The sad reality of competitive sports is that many young athletes either have or will hurt themselves so seriously that it will end their seasons and potentially their careers. The good news is that surgical and rehabilitative technology has become so advanced that a full physical recovery from an injury that two decades ago might have been career-ending is now commonplace.

But another reality of physical injuries is that the mind gets damaged too, but little attention is paid to how the absence of “mental rehab” can prevent athletes from returning to or improving on their pre-injury level of performance. As a result, I thought I would share some ideas I have about how injured athletes can ensure that their minds recover as fully as do their bodies.

Keep Perspective

Accept that getting hurt sucks and you will feel bad at times, especially early in your recovery when you’re more disabled than recovering. You will be in pain. You’ll feel frustrated, angry, and depressed. You’ll want to curl up in a ball and withdraw from life. These reactions are normal and, to some degree, healthy, as you have to allow yourself to grieve for your loss.

At the same time, if you allow yourself to stay in that funk for too long, you will surely slow your recovery. So, after a short time, get over your “pity party” and get your mind on your recovery; keep focused on the present (“What can I do now to get healthy?”) and the future (“I will heal and get back better than ever!”).

Another part of keeping perspective is that your injury seems like a big deal now, but, when you look back on it in a few years, it will probably be just a blip in your athletic career and life. Also, think about Larisa Yurkiw, who had as serious a knee injury as anyone can have and had the determination, patience, persistence, and perseverance to wait two years to get “back in the game” with no guarantee that it would ever happen.

Stick with Your Rehab Program

A simple reality I learned in recovering from my own shoulder injury was that if you follow your rehab program, you will get better (and if you don’t you won’t). The problem is that rehab hurts (a lot!), is boring, tiring, monotonous, in other words, it gets old fast. That’s why so many injured athletes end up either shortening or skipping rehab sessions, or not putting in their best effort. The result: slowed or incomplete recovery. There is also a subset of injured athletes who have the belief that more is better, so they do more sets and reps on more days than recommended by their rehab team. Unfortunately, this “more is better” mentality often results in overuse injuries and other complications, and a slowed rather than accelerated recovery. My recommendation here is very straightforward: Do exactly what your rehab people tell you to do, no more and no less.

Become a Better Athlete

I have seen athletic careers saved by serious injuries. How’s that possible, you might ask. Getting injured can teach you to be tough, endure hardship, and really find your motivation for your sport. Injuries can also enable you to focus on areas of our sport that have been weaknesses, but you simply haven’t had time to work on them. Yes, a knee injury, for example, can prevent you from doing a lot. But it’s also an opportunity to figure out ways you can improve as an athlete working around your knee, for instance, strengthen your core and upper body, improve your flexibility, and increase your stamina. The goal is for you to return to your sport a physically better athlete than you were before.

Redirect Your Energies

One of the most difficult aspects of an injury is that you can’t do what you normally do as an athlete and are often at a loss how to expend that energy that builds up in you every day. Another downside is that you have lost something that has been a source of self-esteem, validation, meaning, satisfaction, and joy in your life.

Your best path is to find something toward which you can direct your energy and that will provide you with what your sport used to for you. It can be anything, for example, learning a musical instrument, cooking, reading, school, whatever. The important thing is to find something you can care about and throw yourself into it just the way you threw yourself into your sport. Not only will it bolster how you feel about yourself, but it will also take your mind off of the disappointment of your injury and difficulty of the recovery.

Stay Involved in Your Sport

The chances are that much of your life revolves around your sport and, being injured can cause you to feel isolated and at a distance from the sport you love. This separation from your sport can also hurt your motivation because you aren’t experiencing many of the good things that you get from your sport.

So, look for ways to stay connected with your sport. For example, become an apprentice coach (this will help you learn more about technique) or help out at training and competitions. I realize that this might be difficult because you may be “jonesing” to be out there and you may not like seeing your competitors moving ahead of you. At the same time, both the connection and seeing others having fun and getting results will further motivate you to rehab and get back to your sport.

Watch Video

Imagine if, while sidelined with an injury, you just sat on the sofa all day. Obviously, your muscles would atrophy and you’d get really out of shape. The same applies to your mind. If you don’t keep it sharp, it too will get soft and out of shape.

One way to keep your mind in shape is to watch video of top athletes in your sport and yourself. You can use video to “rehab” your mind and keep it focused and “in the game” during your recovery. Watch video of your favorite athletes you admire three time a week for 10 minutes. You will learn about technique and feel inspired watching them (while recognizing that many of them have had serious injuries as well).

Develop a Mental-imagery Program

There is nothing more important to your mental recovery than mental imagery. Imagery is not just something that goes on in your head. In fact, it connects your mind and your body and, amazingly, activates muscles in the same way as when you are actually skiing (though not with the same intensity). Mental imagery, in a way, fools your body into thinking that you are really skiing.

Imagery has huge benefits to recovery from injury. Research has shown that you can improve your skills without actual training by engaging in regular mental imagery. So, by doing imagery regularly, you can maintain or maybe even better your athletic skills. Seeing and feeling yourself continuing to train and compete (in your mind’s eye) will keep your motivation up (because you’ll be inspired to get back to your sport), your confidence high (because you’ll regularly see and feel yourself performing well), and your mind focused (because you’ll be exercising your mental skills and, as a result, they will stay in shape for your return to your sport). Importantly, imagery will make you feel like you’re still progressing as an athlete.

Bottom Line

When you get seriously injured, it is a real bummer. But what is an even bigger bummer is not returning fully or as quickly as possible to your sport. For you to return to the field, court, course, hill, or what-have-you as good or better than you were before your injury, you need to do everything possible to facilitate your recovery. That means, of course, following your physical rehab program to the letter. But it also means developing and following a mental rehab program as well, so that your body and your mind are fully recovered and prepared for the rigors of your sport from the very first time you return to training.

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