It’s no secret that injury rates in youth sports are exploding. ACL tears have gotten a lot of attention in the media. According to US Youth Soccer, females are indeed more susceptible to ACL injuries; most studies report that females are 4-8 times more likely to tear this ligament. With the majority of my clients being elite female athletes, sadly I see many…too many injured athletes in my office. Over the last 5 years, I have even hosted injured athletes group sessions to help athletes deal with the mental side of their injury.
The mental effects of sports injury can be tricky, some say even more tricky than dealing with the physical side. Why? Because it’s invisible. When a physical injury and the associated pain is present, you can touch it and feel it. There is swelling, an incision, then later a knee brace and a scar. Doctors can give you clear expectations of how long the pain will last and a time frame for rehab and returning to sport. It’s a process…A well-understood process.
On the other hand, most athletes never get any help with the mental issues that come along with a major injury. Thinking often sounds like this, “Will I ever be as good as I was?” “Will I lose my place on the team?” “Will my knee ever be strong enough?” “Will I get injured again?” Emotionally, athletes feel sad and depressed that they can’t train hard and get on the field to compete. They feel a strong sense of loss and sometimes excluded from their team, training, and friends. Additionally, they have often lost their #1 coping mechanism…exercise. Ironically, as athletes make good progress on their physical healing, often times the mental and emotional issues to worsen. Adding further insult to injury (literally!!) are all the well-intended people surrounding the athlete. “You’ll be better soon!” “You’re getting around just fine!” “You’re tough, you’ll be fine!” What is meant to be helpful and supportive, can leave the injured athlete feeling alienated and alone…“They just don’t get it.”
How can your athlete best navigate the mental and emotional side of injury rehabilitation and recovery?
- Program Confidence – Your Physical Therapist will be your guide through your rehabilitation. This should be someone you like and trust. There are lots of good ones out there, find an excellent one!
- Stick to your plan – Do everything you need to do and nothing you don’t.
- Physical confidence – Build and believe in your body. As your body makes progress, add in positive self-talk (“I feel strong!” “I can complete my whole workout.” “I’m ready to run!”)
- Return to sport confidence – This can be the scariest of all phases. Take it one step at a time. No contact, light contact, and finally, full contact. YOU WILL succeed. Believe it!
- Get social support – Finding others who are going through or who have been through the process can be your best bet. It’s a tough journey, but many athletes have been through it successfully.
Prepare for adversity before it strikes – Mental toughness is the key to a successful journey through sport. When adversity strikes…especially injury, managing your mental game can be the key to a full recovery.