The impact of sports related injuries
There exists many physical, emotional, and social benefits to participation in competitive sports; however, the risk of injury is ever-present. Each year, athletes of all levels incur more than 8.6 million sports related injuries. These injuries necessarily result in time away from competition, and on occasion can lead to retirement from one’s chosen sport. The physical pain of injury and rehabilitation, as well as the discomfort of forced “down time,” without question affects psychological well-being. Therefore, when recovering from injuries, it is just as important to attend to athletes’ mental health as it is to attend to their physical health. Counseling for athletes helps them to process the emotional consequences of their injuries and develop healthy skills to manage every stage of their recovery.
At Best Within You Therapy & Wellness, we understand that physical fitness is a key component of an athlete’s identity. Injuries challenge this identity; and as such, it is normal for athletes to experience feelings of uncertainty and loss. Our psychologists are specifically trained to help athletes address the psychological factors associated with injury.
Psychological Symptoms of Sports Injuries:
- Feelings of Loss/Uncertainty
- Changes in appetite
- Changes in sleep pattern
- Decreased self-esteem
- Loss of motivation
- Relationship issues
Common Mental Challenges Related to Sports Injuries
There is no formula for how an athlete will respond to their injury. Additionally, it is important to remember that recovery from injury is a process that spans from the time of the incident to the post-injury phase, through rehabilitation, and finally when they return to their sport—if they return to their sport. During this process, which might last weeks to months, athletes might experience numerous mental challenges. Some examples of challenges athletes might face include polarized thinking, pessimistic outlook, and fear of re-injury.
As athletes are accustomed to the physical extremes of sports, injured athletes often resort to extremes in their thinking. “All-or-none” thinking (sometimes called “black-and-white” thinking), is the tendency to categorize performance into all-good or all-bad. Polarized thinking may sound like “If I can’t play soccer, then I am a failure.” This unrealistic expectation often leads to disappointment and frustration, which can compromise physical rehabilitation from injury.
Negative thinking is found to slow down the recovery process. When an athlete is first injured, it is common for them to have thoughts such as, “I will never be able to play sports again” or “I am sure I have ruined my career and future.” When this negative self-talk begins to occur more long term, it tends to be harmful to the athlete mentality and recovery process.
When injured, it is common for an athlete to fear that they will re-injure themselves. Returning to sport can feel very overwhelming. This fear can negatively impact rehabilitation outcomes. An athlete may experience pain or discomfort and catastrophize (jumping to the worst-case scenario) that this signals re-injury. This could then lead to fear of movement, which slows down recovery and ultimately increases the likelihood of more pain.
Counseling For Athletes: How to Mentally Recover from a Sports Injury
Trainers and coaches help athletes physically recover from an injury, but sports psychologists help athletes mentally recover from an injury. Sports psychologists use similar practices that typical psychologists use during therapy, but they are trained to specifically modify their techniques to athletes. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is very helpful for athletes that have had a recent injury. Targeted relaxation strategies and SMART goal setting are just a few of the techniques a sports psychologist may use in CBT counseling for injured athletes.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
In the context of sports injury recovery, CBT aims towards modifying negative thoughts, behaviors, and emotions surrounding the injury and the rehabilitation process. This type of counseling for athletes is beneficial as it focuses on the present emotions surrounding injury. A sports psychologist will work with the athlete to develop a broad array of tools to challenge negative thinking, to be an active participant in the recovery process, and tolerate the range of emotions an athlete typically experiences post-injury.
Targeted Relaxation Strategies
As a component of CBT, sports psychologists may teach targeted relaxation strategies during therapy to help manage the strong emotions that the injured athlete experiences. These techniques are incredibly helpful with managing stress and anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing (aka “belly breathing”) is the centerpiece of all relaxation techniques, but sports psychologists will also teach skills to increase athletes’ body awareness and help them maintain focus on sports performance as they recover.
Goal-setting is crucial to recovery from sports-related injury, as it allows the athlete to play an active role in the rehabilitation process. Psychologists help athletes maximize their ability to establish productive goals using the SMART technique. SMART is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely. Because goals are small and within reach, athletes witness success more immediately, thereby increasing motivation and restoring confidence.
Therapy for Sports Injury
Here at Best Within You Therapy & Wellness, Dr. Vincent Fitch and Dr. Andrea Elkon specialize in therapy and counseling for athletes. Dr. Fitch and Dr. Elkon work with high school, college, professional, and recreational athletes who have experienced an injury. When working with our sports psychologists, you will receive personalized and quality care that focuses on your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors surrounding your athletic injury.
If you are struggling with your sports injury and feel like you could benefit from our services, please reach out to one of our licensed psychologists at https://bestwithinyou.com/ to schedule a free consultation. You can also learn more about the sports psychology services that we provide at Best Within You Therapy & Wellness. In addition to therapy for sports injury, Dr. Elkon and Dr. Fitch work with athletes who are experiencing anxiety, performance concerns, or who want to optimize their performance.
Thank you to Maura Johnston, Best Within You Therapy & Wellness intern, and Dr. Andrea Elkon, Best Within You Therapy & Wellness psychologist for this blog post.