Taking Back Control: How Athletes Can Thrive During Injuries

Taking Back Control: How Athletes Can Thrive During Injuries

Have you ever felt helpless after an injury sidelined you from your sport? Like me, many athletes struggle with the mental toll of injuries. I experienced injuries that prevented me from competing in my sport – track. I know firsthand how hard it is for athletes who sustain an injury to find resources to help them regain a sense of control during a vulnerable, rollercoaster state.

Athletes who become injured often report feeling isolated and unsure how to navigate the road to recovery. In this blog post, I explore the challenges that I and numerous athletes face from injury. Also, I offer practical tips on regaining control and thriving during this difficult time.

Injuries are often perceived as something out of one’s control and detrimental to an athlete’s mental state. When your body does not function fully, your mind can follow. Such challenges are often hidden from the romanticized view of sport. 

Mental Skills Experts Offer Help

I recently spoke with sports psychologist and author of  “The Gold Medal Mind, Becoming a Psychologically Skilled Athlete Dr. Doug Jowdy. To disclose, I worked with Dr. Jowdy when I suffered from injuries prior to and as a collegiate athlete, which ultimately led to the end of my track career. Dr. Jowdy was able to help guide me through these rough patches. His insights can help to mitigate the struggles for anyone who is injured or works with injured athletes.

Also, I spoke with Jonathan Haynes, a Certified Mental Performance Consultant (CMPC). A CMPC is a leading certification achieved by only a few hundred people who have demonstrated formal education and on the job training in mental enhancement. Mr. Haynes earned his Master’s degree in Sport and Performance Psychology from the University of Denver. He offered an additional insightful perspective for athletes with injuries and their support systems.

Haynes recommends athletes seek peer support from coaches or athletic trainers and ask for them to facilitate team awareness by addressing the team regarding the athletes injury, care plan, and its limitations. According to Haynes, this initial communication can help ease the burden on the injured athlete. Furthermore, the injured athlete can propose specific ways coaches and teammates can assist during their recovery. Finally, consulting a sports psychologist or CMPC can equip the athlete with coping skills to navigate the emotional rollercoaster of injury.

Dr. Jowdy emphasizes a deep layer of self-advocacy: self-discipline. An athlete recovering from an injury, or any athlete struggling with their physical or mental health, can reclaim a sense of control by focusing on aspects they can manage. Some of these include: prioritizing quality sleep, eating whole foods, incorporating mindfulness practices, implementing a rule to stay off of your phone an hour before bed, and seeing friends that positively fill you up. He emphasized the issue of technology and the importance of establishing healthy habits. He gave an example of when an athlete is receiving treatment in the athletic training room for rehabilitation or physical therapy that they tend to sit on their phone when they could be working on their mental toughness and visualization skills. While Dr. Jowdy advocated for a digital detox for everyone, he thought this was especially useful for injured athletes because of the constant performance pressures and a detox allows them to focus on their recovery without the distractions of social media and online notifications. Social media is often associated with a host of negative mental health issues. If athletes need to use their phone to connect with their social network then that would be okay as long as the duration is limited and an awareness of type of usage is implemented.

Although some of these tips may seem obvious, for an injured athlete, they may feel out of reach. This is why implementing these skills or tools proactively is key. Mr. Haynes and Dr. Jowdy mentioned that many athletes tend to mistakenly define themselves solely by their sport. This narrow identity can be detrimental when faced with an injury or retirement. They recommend athletes cultivate interests and strengths outside of athletics. Diversifying one’s sense of self can equip athletes-as-people to better handle the mental and social challenges of recovery. Studies show that pre-existing positive characteristics, like strong social connections and stress management skills, can significantly aid recovery (1). Conversely, factors like stress, isolation, and untreated anxiety and depression can hinder progress and successful injury management.

It is essential for coaches and those around athletes to see each athlete as a whole person. After awareness raising, caregivers can eliminate unnecessary stress, teach athletes stress management skills, and foster a supportive social and psychological environment.

So, what are additional takeaways?

For Athletes:

  • Prioritize healthy habits: Maintain a balanced lifestyle with proper sleep, a nutritious diet, and limited screen time.
  • Nurture your social network: Engage with friends and family, resist isolation, and maintain positive social connections.
  • Manage stress: Identify and address stressors, focusing on long-term goals for overall well-being.
  • Seek mental health support: Consider consulting a sports psychologist or CMPC to develop coping mechanisms and emotional resilience.
  • Communicate your needs: Clearly inform coaches, teammates, and athletic trainers about your need for support while injured. Discuss ways to stay involved with the team and maintain a sense of connection to the sport.
  • Develop a well-rounded identity: Explore hobbies and interests outside your sport to cultivate a sense of self that transcends athletic achievements.

For Support Systems:

  • Recognize the whole person: Acknowledge and value of the athlete’s identity beyond their sport.
  • Teach stress management: Provide resources or guidance on stress management techniques to empower the athlete.
  • Offer personalized support: Ask the athlete how you can best assist them and provide various options for their needs. Advocate on their behalf if necessary.
  • Facilitate professional help: Help connect the athlete with a sports psychologist or CMPC.

Many of these tools helped guide me while injured. I found it comforting and empowering to learn strategies that could benefit my recovery journey. I struggled immensely during my journey with injuries and amidst these struggles, if I can alleviate even a fraction of that burden for someone else, then this endeavor will have been profoundly worthwhile.

Gould, D., Petlichkoff, L. M., Prentice, B., & Tedeschi, F. (2000). Psychology of Sports Injuries, 11(1). Gatorade Sports Science Institute.  https://www.iahsaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/PsychologyofSportsInjuries.pdf

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