Athletes at all levels of performance have the concern of injury prevention in hopes of staying healthy enough to perform to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, there are many athletes who end up getting hurt in the process of pursuing their athletic goals. There are some people who have been able to bounce back and pick up right where they left off prior to getting injured, but it is not a simple feat. One example of an incredibly resilient athlete after ACL surgery is
Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. In the season following Peterson’s surgery, he led the NFL in rushing and put up MVP-like numbers. Most athletes, however, never quite return to true form. In some instances athletes stay in their sport and make a valiant attempt to make a comeback, but never get over their psychological fear of re-injury. In other cases players feel so defeated when they come across major injuries that they think all of the work they put in before was in vain, so they never attempt a comeback. In recent times, there have even been players who retire preemptively in order to avoid being injured in the first place. The biggest reason for young, healthy athletes retiring from contact sports is to avoid concussions and their long term negative effects that have had increasing occurrence. A huge example of this type of retirement is former San Francisco 49ers Linebacker Chris Borland.
In addition to physical recovery from injuries, managing psychological and emotional aspects of the recovery process is a lot for an athlete to handle on his own. In qualitative research, it has been proven that during the phase of physical recovery, the overall mood of the athlete is decreased. The Sportsman’s Feelings After Injury Questionnaire has shown that many injured sportsmen show a general trend of being more frustrated, depressed, and bored. According to the Bi-Polar Profile of Mood States these same surveyed injured sportsmen were documented as being tense, hostile, depressed, unsure, tired, and confused compared to healthy athletes taking the same tests (Pearson and Jones, 2010). The study did not find any significant gender differences in mood, but younger athletes were the most angered population in the study. Regardless of the severity of the injury, if emotional distress due to being injured was not detected early on, there was a high likelihood of impeding optimal rehabilitation (Smith et al, 2012).
It does not make any sense to me that despite the great deal of evidence proving that psychological and emotional factors can lead to injury and re-injury of athletes, coaches continue to neglect this aspect of their training program. Coaches can prepare athletes physically, tactically, and many more ways, but if the athlete does not feel comfortable executing the game plan due to prior limitations, or if the athlete does not enjoy or want to partake in the strategy, all the preparation in the world would not make a difference. It is very common for athletes to come back from injury and play timid even though they have been medically declared fully healed. One major tip to regain confidence is to slowly build up to what the athlete’s fear is about, such as returning to full speed, performing in large groups or packs, having a large audience, or specific movements involving the injured body part.
Since my primary sport of interest is distance running, I looked into psychological factors that are prominent and specific to this sport. In the British Journal of Sports Medicine I found psychological research showing that ‘self blame’ predicts overuse injuries in top level track and field athletes. Runners who were struggling with self blame and had prior injuries had the highest rate of injury out of the groups being looked. The overuse injuries were sustained because athletes felt the need to continue training before the body had a sufficient amount of time to recover (Timpka et al, 2015).
One example of a big name in track and field who is currently on the long road to recovery is former 10,000 meter american record holder Chris Solinsky. In 2009, he placed 12th in the 5,000 meters at world championships. In 2010, he became the first non-African to break the 27 minute barrier in the 10,000 meter run. Solinsky also just missed the 5,000 meter American record twice that year. Right after qualifying for 2011 World Championships Solinsky had a hamstring emulsion, forcing him to forfeit his spot on Team USA. Ever since this injury, he has not been on the same stage he was prior to the injury. He is still working on returning to the International level of competing by working out with his training group from before, but more than four years after getting hurt this appears to be an increasingly unreachable goal. The following video is an interview with Solinsky less than a year after his withdrawal from 2011 World Championships.
Emotional and psychological well-being are vital to the health and performance of athletes. With comfort in completing sport-specific movements comes proficiency and decreased risk of injury. When athletes are timid and have doubts about their movements, they are at risk of injury and re-injury, as well as decreased performance. When athletes are recovering from injury, they are more inclined to be struggling with psychological and emotional turmoils directly and indirectly related to their performance in the sport they play. I believe it is vital that coaches implement some sort of mental skills training to help give athletes the confidence to complete movements effectively and safely.
Pearson, L., & Jones, G. (2015). Emotional effects of sports injuries: Implications for physiotherapists. Physiotherapy, 78(10), 9/27/2015-762-770. doi:10.1016/S0031-9406(10)61642-2
Smith, A. M., Scott, S. G., O’Fallon, W. M., & Young, M. L. (2012). Emotional responses of athletes to injury. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 65(1), 38–50. doi:10.1016/S0025-6196(12)62108-9
Timpka, T., Jacobsson, J., Dahlström, Ö., Kowalski, J., Bargoria, V., Ekberg, J., Renström, P. (2015). The psychological factor ‘self-blame’ predicts overuse injury among top-level swedish track and field athletes: A 12-month cohort study. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(19) doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-094622