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When injury puts you on the bench: How do you cope? Come back?

posted by Fair Game News
Friday, March 4, 2011 at 3:27pm EST

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By Ashleigh Sargent

After I recently suffered a severe ankle sprain that sidelined me from basketball for several weeks, I saw firsthand that injuries are not just physically damaging but mentally challenging too! I spoke with Kate McLaren, PhD, a sports psychologist at The Education Alliance, about what to do when injuries change the game.  McLaren, who has a PhD in sport exercise psychology, has taught at Springfield College, New England College, Lasell College, and Cal State Fullerton.

FGN: Why is it so hard for athletes to be injured? Why is being on the sidelines so hard?

KM: Being on the sidelines is difficult for athletes because they want to be in on the action and be able to participate. They also do not want to feel like they are letting down teammates, coaches, or family. Injuries can also cause fear and anxiety about the future – whether they will recover, whether a re-injury will occur, or whether someone will permanently replace them on the team.

One of the main reasons that season or career ending injuries are so difficult is because injuries act as a threat to an individual’s identity. If you ask an athlete the question “Who are you?” or “How would you describe yourself?” he or she would likely say, “I am an athlete”(rather than “I am a daughter” or “I am a Democrat”). If an individual identifies strongly with the athlete role, having a serious injury can force athletes into an identity crisis (“If I’m not an athlete anymore, who am I?”) which is very difficult to cope with.

FGN: What are the feelings that most athletes have when they suffer an injury?

KM: Typically, athletes experience fear, anxiety, guilt, anger and varying levels of depression after suffering an injury.

FGN: How should teammates of an injured athlete approach them?

KM: Each athlete will cope with injury in a different way. Some are angry, some are scared, and some are depressed. Regardless, social support from friends, teammates, and family is necessary in the recovery process.

Most athletes will feel like they are letting the team down, or like their teammates, coaches, or family might be disappointed in them – so teammates should be as supportive as possible. It is important that injured athletes still feel like they are included and that they are a part of the team. Sometimes, injured athletes end up taking the role of a team manager (keeping the book, etc.). Some athletes like this designation, others see it as a demotion – so athletes should be asked first what they would like their role to be.

FGN: Injuries often cause athletes to be timid in certain situations when they return play.  How can they deal with this?

KM: This is a very important aspect of recovery, because if an athlete is timid when they return to play, it increases the chances of re-injury. Sometimes when athletes are timid or not 100%, they focus on avoiding injury rather than on what is relevant in the sport environment. For example, if a basketball player is concerned about re-spraining an ankle during a game, she is not focused 100% on performance and what is going on around her – which can lead to re-injury or a new injury. In addition, “babying” an injury changes the way one runs or walks (gait) and general performance. This can lead to overcompensation injuries.

FGN: Injuries can also impact performance when an athlete can no longer physically do something as well as before their injury occurred. How can they manage the feelings of disappointment/frustration in a reduced level of performance?

KM: Initial declines in performance can be expected when returning from an injury based on a loss of practice time. Athletes should be mentally prepared for these declines and remind themselves that they will have to put time into their performance recovery. Research has shown that athletes who use mental imagery and visualization (mentally practicing their sport) during rehab show fewer performance declines when they return.

If the injury has a permanent negative effect on performance, it will take time for the athlete to accept their decreased performance ability.  It is really important for athletes to set small goals to help them recognize that although they may not be able to perform as they once did, that improvement is possible.

FGN: Many injuries plague athletes for their entire lives.  How should athletes keep themselves motivated to do rehab and treatment, even when they start to feel better?

KM: One of the major reasons that re-injury occurs is because athletes come back too quickly. It is critical that athletes work with their doctors, athletic trainers, and physical therapists to establish a rehab program that is appropriate for a timely recovery. It is also important to note that sometimes athletes are physically ready to return but not mentally ready.  Remember that playing scared leads to re-injury.

Athletes can stay motivated to continue with rehab and treatment by setting goals, involving friends and loved ones with treatment (invite them to rehab to watch or participate with the injured athlete), and by staying positive through setbacks. Recovery can be a very long road, but social support can significantly help with the rehab process.

Ashleigh Sargent is a sophomore at Wellesley College majoring in Psychology and minoring in Mathematics.  She is on the varsity basketball team, a member of the Student Athlete Advisory Committee, and a head of the Wellesley Athlete Mentor Program.

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