Understanding The Psychology Of Injured Athletes And Returning To Play

Jamie Robbins, PhD

   In general, it is very difficult for athletes to see they are physically replaceable. In other words, there is always a chance that someone will be able to take their spot on the team. Accordingly, during the rehabilitation of an injury, it is critical to discuss the athlete’s other qualities with him or her.

   An athlete may be an amazing midfielder on the soccer team but discussing her abilities to make strong cuts, change her speed and score with both feet are not as important as her work ethic, positive attitude and leadership skills. When she returns to the field, it is her work ethic and positive attitude that will allow her to push herself, and put in the time and practice needed to put her in a position to eventually to regain her place on the field. In addition, it is her leadership skills that will allow her to make an impact even when she is not playing. Brian’s thoughts led to complacency because he did not want to work for a position he felt he deserved.

   Not every injured athlete has the same drive and determination to return. Sometimes the mindset changes because of the injury. At other times, the mindset is merely illuminated because of the injury. In other words, some athletes will do whatever it takes to return. Those are the athletes you need to put on a short leash so they do not re-injure themselves. Other athletes take the injury as their “way out.” There is nothing wrong with taking an “out” from a sport that you truly do not want to play anymore. However, it is important to identify whether that person truly wants to quit the sport or whether he or she is just scared or unwilling to put in the hard work necessary to return.

   Injured athletes sometimes create the belief in their minds that everyone is against them when, in reality, coaches and teammates have always wanted the same thing: athletes who work hard and perform effectively. Injured athletes only see that they are not included or that they are not the “go-to” athletes anymore. This typically happens as a result of inexperience or a lack of awareness on the part of coaches and teammates with regard to best practices with injured athletes. Although injured athletes translate their behaviors as a lack of concern or dislike, most coaches I interviewed regarding their perception of injured athletes explained it as a lack of knowledge concerning what to say to these individuals.

   Still, there are times when a real incident incites an athlete’s feeling of frustration. For example, a runner had broken her foot and after a long and arduous rehab, she returned to the track. Her runs were constantly painful and her coach thought she was “playing possum.” This is a common phrase used by coaches about athletes who they feel are “faking it.” Interestingly, this athlete’s parent was close with her coach and the two influenced one another. This athlete recognized her coach’s and her parents’ frustrations, and she tried to return even faster and harder. Needless to say, her fear of disappointing others led to risky behaviors and ultimately re-injury.

   It truly is a fuzzy line between working hard and working too hard. It is important to differentiate when an athlete is doing everything he or she should be doing versus doing too much. Similarly, it is important for an athlete to recognize when his or her mind is negatively influencing his or her chances for a full recovery. Taken together, the mind influences the behavior, making it critical to know that one’s mind is focused on recovery and a healthy return, not the fear of disappointing others or frustration over being left out.

   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.

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