Understanding The Psychology Of Injured Athletes And Returning To Play

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Author(s): 
Jamie Robbins, PhD

   Coaches and parents both want athletes healed and returning to play as quickly as possible. More often than not, athletes want that same result. The problem is that all these people are pushing and pushing to get back without considering the difficulties and adjustments that need to happen upon one’s return.

   Starters may not necessarily be starters anymore. The fastest athlete on the team may not be able to run. Ultimately, everyone involved needs to shift their attention from “who he or she was before” to “who he or she is now.” This is not a mindset of acceptance and inaction, but rather acceptance and planning to put one in the position to get better and stronger in the coming days, months and years if necessary.

   These shifts in one’s mindset do not happen overnight and they do not happen independently. Injured athletes must work on recognizing their thoughts and readjusting their thinking to benefit rather than hurt their ultimate return. They must first accept that they are injured. Later, they must accept that they are healed but not 100 percent. Throughout the process of a full return to play, these athletes should be setting small goals to ensure they keep getting better.

Emphasizing Realistic Goal-Setting To Facilitate Confidence And Motivation

Throughout the rehabilitation process, athletes should set small goals, adjust their mindset, surround themselves with supportive people and develop their patience.9 It is important for others like doctors, parents and coaches to understand the process, and provide athletes with support and resources to help them build in these areas. Simple strategies like setting daily rehabilitation goals followed by daily practice goals can help athletes experience small successes and ultimately build their confidence.

   Every injured athlete wants to return to 100 percent but it will take time to get to that level. If they do not see small improvements over time, they are likely to lose the motivation and drive to continue. Once on the practice fields, the athlete has to set small goals based on his or her current as opposed to former status. The athlete will then see small daily improvements leading him or her in the direction of better performances in the future.

   Building and/or maintaining confidence is essential, and it cannot be connected solely to results. Athletes should not be confident because they are starters on the team. Rather, athletes must recognize that confidence helps them push through failures, and keeps them trying even when situations are not going their way. Confidence is a way of thinking and acting that should be evident in everything one does regardless of the outcome.

Has The Injured Athlete Become Withdrawn?

In addition to building confidence, injured athletes must work on their overall outlook with regard to personal interactions. Injured athletes must recognize that they get what they give.9 If athletes separate themselves from the team and coaches during an injury or if athletes act sullen and quiet around teammates, they will likely get a similar response. It is always difficult to be injured.

   Accordingly, the mind of an injured athlete tends to be focused inside. Injured athletes must learn to focus outward more and recognize not just how they feel, but also how others around them feel. During their time off the field, they can be better helpers, supporters and learners. Ultimately, you get what you give and if you wait for others to support and help you, the wait may be long.

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