Understanding The Psychology Of Injured Athletes And Returning To Play

Jamie Robbins, PhD

   Although healthcare providers are busy, it is essential that someone takes the time to help these injured athletes through the injury and return to play experience. The process is not easy and it does not end the moment an athlete is cleared to return. In fact, that can be the time when it gets even harder. Athletes return to the fields and coaches and teammates expect them to be the same as they were prior to the injury.

   Although a full return may be possible in time, it will not happen immediately and the athletes, parents, teammates and coaches need to understand this. Athletes who have missed numerous practices or those who have been inactive for any period of time will require a slow progression back to their previous level. This is frustrating for coaches who may “need” that athlete and for the athlete who wants to return so as not to let down the team, coach or themselves. This desire to return triggers an internal struggle as the athlete wants to run hard and participate fully, but fears re-injury. Additionally, the athlete may want to listen to doctors and trainers while simultaneously appeasing the team and coach.

Pertinent Insights On The Eight Types Of Social Support

Therefore, one must provide social support in several ways throughout the recovery and return to play process. Richman, Rosenfeld and Hardy identified the following eight types of support: emotional support, emotional challenge support, reality confirmation support, task appreciation support, task challenge support, tangible support, personal assistance support and listening support.3

   Emotional support and listening support can be helpful when athletes are explaining their feelings. This type of support helps the athlete feel relevant and cared for. If this type of support occurs early in the process, it is then easier to get a productive response when initiating emotional challenge support, which is intended to help recipients evaluate their attitude, values and feelings. Sometimes injured athletes get overly consumed in their own negativity, thus skewing their view of reality. It may take an outsider to challenge their views and help them see their personal responsibilities in their recovery.

   This also speaks to the benefits of task challenge support, which is intended to challenge recipients to be more involved. Social support providers can challenge injured athletes to get more involved in their rehabilitation and find alternate ways of working with their teams. The type and amount of support required may differ per person, but the importance of it to one’s psychological recovery and emotional well-being is undeniable.

Navigating The Emotions And Mindset Of Injured Athletes

The “what ifs” are likely harder than the actual situations once an athlete returns to play. Many athletes fear re-injury, continued pain or the possibility of not reaching their long-term goals.8 Athletes have expressed worries about not meeting others’ expectations and ultimately letting down their teammates and coaches. These fears lead some athletes to conjure up the worst case scenarios regarding their return before even setting foot on the field.

   For example, Brian was convinced that his coach no longer wanted him on the team because he was injured. He was certain there was no connection between his behaviors and his eventual status on the team because his coach had already replaced him. In reality, the coach did give another athlete a chance during Brian’s time away from the field of play but he also gave Brian a chance to earn his position once he was healthy. Rather than seeing the situation as a positive challenge, Brian chose to see it as an uncontrollable obstacle.

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