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Mental recovery after an injury

How to mentally recover from a sports injury? 

When you think of recovering from a sports injury, it’s likely that you’ll think of the physical process of recovery. Aside from surgery and rehabilitation, there’s a psychological process to managing injury as well as positive advice for sports players and athletes, as explained by Dr John Tanner.

How likely is it that an athlete will sustain an injury during their career?

A professional athlete rarely goes through a season without some sort of sports injury, let alone a career.
Playing and competing at a high level means you are always pushing yourself to the limit and therefore you’re always just under or just over the threshhold at which your tissues become overloaded. If you are involved in full-contact sports, such as boxing or semi-contact sports such as football, there is always the unpredictable risk of:
• Receiving a blow to a vulnerable area of your body
• Being in an uncontrolled collision.

In short, you should expect and be prepared for injury.

How might someone emotionally respond to their sports injury?

As individuals, we all respond in our own particular way but there are common themes which include:

• Frustration
• Blaming others or ourselves
• Anxiety about time lost for training or missing a vital match or competition
• Worrying about the nature of the injury, about needing a clear diagnosis and/or prognosis of time until recovery
If prolonged time out is required, depression can develop. This can be due to:

• Missing the sport or an important game
• Loss of involvement with teammates
• Loss of identity as a fully able and fit sportsperson
These negative feelings can, in turn, give rise to gloomy and pessimistic thinking about future prospects of ever making a full recovery.

Aside from surgery and rehabilitation, why is it important to pay attention to the mind?

Mental health is, at last, becoming recognised as equally important as physical health in sport. Traditionally, and especially in male-dominated sports of strength, speed and agility, mental health problems were seen as a sign of weakness.

Thankfully, this is changing and there is a greater openness about acknowledging feelings of vulnerabilitylow mood and low self-esteem

Some mental issues may be related more to other issues at home or in relationships, past abuse, and of course sexual inclination. Whatever the source and nature of these emotions, the opportunity to share with a coach, counsellor, teammate or a doctor is a huge step in dealing with them.

Unburdening pent up feelings without anticipation of judgement can then lead to the process of managing them, change and resolution. Mental health problems affect physiology and therefore performance. In team sports they cause feelings of isolation and interfere with working together for common goals.

How should a sportsman psychologically manage their recovery from an injury?

Ensure their injury, advice and treatment is being managed by doctors and physiotherapists they trust, and that means practitioners with the right qualifications and experience. With the trust comes confidence that you are following the right treatment path, and therefore likely to cooperate fully with the rehab programme. With trust, fears and anxieties can be shared and alleviated.

What positive advice can you give to someone post-injury?

• Listen to your body
• Be guided by your therapist
• Don’t try to manage it on your own
• Avoid trolling the internet too much because it is likely to confuse you
• Comply with your given exercise programme faithfully
• Don’t go for ‘quick fixes’

Be wary of wonder cures and solutions, or the latest gimmick, because they won’t be supported by the evidence. Instead, take the chance to learn about your body and the time needed for it to heal. Returning to competition may lead to re-injury, which is particularly common in hamstring strains and tendon problems.

When is someone mentally ready to return to sports?

When they feel fully confident that their previous injury will manage under pressure. That confidence will be earned when they gradually return to activity, testing the injured tissues at each stage before going up a level. The final stage is, of course, rehearsing and repeating the techniques and patterns of the movements they use in their matches/competitions until they are at their level of fitness required for the match.

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