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Missing Time in the Competitive Arena: Managing Psychological Responses to Injury

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Sustaining an injury in performance settings can be one of the most frustrating and upsetting experiences a performer can have. Many performers will experience minor nagging injuries that will not lead to time out of the competitive arena. However, when an injury begins to impact performance or keeps a performer out of training and competition for a more significant period of time, the performer can experience negative and debilitating psychological reactions such as higher levels of anxiety, stress, depression, and frustration and a decrease in motivation (Cupal, 1998). In turn, injury can have a negative impact on the performers overall well-being including their health, social interactions, performance and risk of further injury. With the onset of injury, one’s typical week of training, meetings, competitions and other sport-related commitments can stop abruptly and be replaced with a rehabilitation schedule involving unfamiliar periods of rest and recovery.

The goal of most performers when they have sustained an injury is to return to the arena as soon as possible. This focus might be on physical recovery from injury, but it is equally important for the performer to be psychologically prepared for their return to the arena. The following are a number of strategies and attitudes that can help performers positively and productively navigate their time away from performing due to injury.

It’s a good time to work on other things.
When you become injured, you will often find you have all kinds of time on your hands that you never had before. Therefore, during times of injury, look for productive ways to use your time. As an example, periods of injury are an ideal time to work on other parts of your game such as the mental side of your game, coaching or mentoring, scouting or learning to use technology. Injury is also a good time to catch up on parts of your life you have been neglecting such as friendships, relationships, or study.

Listen to the advice of professionals as there are no short-cuts to rehabilitation.
Far too often performers are looking to rush back to competition. However, with many injuries, having a previous injury is an important risk factor for experiencing a similar injury in the future (Hagglund, Walden, & Ekstrand, 2006). It is therefore important to listen to your doctors and rehabilitation professionals who are experts in the field and understand the science of getting you back to the arena. Listen to their advice and adhere to their rehabilitation plan for a timely and successful return to competition where you can be confident that your injury has been treated effectively, reducing risk of re-injury.

Recovery is an active process.
One of the frustrating aspects of being injured is feeling like you are not doing anything, that it is passive, or that you are being unproductive. The truth however, is that recovering from injury is an active process. Recovery means following a plan set out by your rehabilitation professional. Even if you have been advised to rest and put your feet up as part of your recovery, remember, resting is an active part of your recovery. So, give yourself permission to rest and recover if that is part of your rehabilitation program.

Avoid alcohol during recovery.
Alcohol can markedly increase recovery time from injury (Barnes, 2014).  Therefore, it is imperative to avoid alcohol if you are a performer, particularly if you are recovering from injury. Ensure during your time of recovery that you take care of your body – Focus on good nutrition, hydration, and sleep.

You might consider getting help.
Injury can be a very lonely place so talking to a sport psychology professional who is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant might be beneficial. A sport psychology professional can assist you with talking through your frustrations and disappointments and provide you with skills and techniques (e.g., goal setting, anxiety management, mental imagery, self-talk, focus and concentration) to assist you in your injury journey and successful return to competition (Cupal, 1998). It is also important to lean on your friends and family for support during a time of injury.

Injury can be a frustrating and painful part of being a performer. However, if you can take an active approach to your recovery, adhere to the recovery plan set out by your rehabilitation professionals, and identify ways in which you can use your time out of the game in a beneficial way, you will likely be back at it before you know it feeling refreshed and ready to perform.

References

Barnes, M.J. (2014). Alcohol: Impact on sports performance and recovery in male athletes. Sports Med, 44, 909–919. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0192-8

Hagglund, M., Walden, M., & Ekstrand, J. (2006). Previous injury as a risk factor for injury in elite football: A prospective study over two consecutive seasons. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(9), 767-772. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2006.026609

Cupal, D. D. (1998). Psychological interventions in sport injury prevention and rehabilitation, Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10(1), 103-123. DOI: 10.1080/10413209808406380

photo of Damien Stewart

By Damien Stewart

Damien Stewart is a sport and exercise psychologist based on the Sunshine Coast of Australia. Damien completed a Master's of Philosophy (Psychology) and Master of Applied Psychology (Sport and Exercise) at the University of Queensland. Damien currently works in private practice servicing sport, exercise and mental health clientele. Damien also serves on the AASP International Relations Committee.

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