Imagine this: You are an athlete – and not just any athlete – an elite athlete. You are a highly successful player in the sport of your choosing. The highlight of your day includes stepping onto the field, ice, or court. The sport drives you, and it serves as your passion for countless years. Many of your best memories come from your sport, but so do a few of your worst. After suffering from 5 concussions, you have limited your ability to focus for more than a ten-minute span. Having a dim light on causes you pounding headaches. Feeling faint and dizzy has become apart of your physiology. And worst of all, the thought of getting back into the sport you can’t live without shoots a bout of anxiety and fear ripping down your spine. It does not take an athlete to understand the effects of an injury due to sport. It does however, take the right knowledge to understand how to best treat those injuries. A study published by the Journal of Sport and Health Science in 2012 open the topic by saying:
“Sport injuries frequently have profound negative consequences on the physical health of sports participants. They also have the potential to cause a great deal of psychological disturbance through increased anger, depression, anxiety, tension, fear, and decreased self-esteem. Sport injuries often result in an immediate imbalance and disruption to the lives of the injured athletes including loss of health and achievement of athletic potential.”
The study is quick to note that while there are serious physical implications that follow an injury, there are serious, and often times more detrimental, psychological effects. Laura Reese, Ryan Pittsinger, and Jingzhen Yang sought out to decipher what steps psychologists can take to help restore the most crucial component in recovery: an athlete’s mind. The study targeted populations of injured competitive and recreational athletes age 17 years and older by using interventions commonly used in sport psychology. The interventions included imagery, goal-setting, relaxation, micro-counseling, written disclosure, and acceptance and commitment therapy. The interventions showed promising results. Guided imagery/relaxation was associated with improved psychological coping and reduced re-injury anxiety. Psychological techniques such as micro-counseling, acceptance and commitment therapy, and written disclosure demonstrated effectiveness in reducing negative psychological consequences, improving psychological coping, and reducing re-injury anxiety. While seemingly small, these improvements may be exactly what an athlete needs to get back to where they want to be.
The reality of injuries in sports is that too often the process of recovery turns a blind eye to the single strongest operating force in our bodies: our brains. While we work daily to subdue concussion symptoms, heal a broken bone, or undergo surgery to repair a tendon, we forget that the component driving that recovery in the first place lies in our head. The encouragement of psychological repair must be reinforced by psychologists, doctors, social support and the athletes themselves. Using interventions such as those demonstrated in this study may provide the foundation needed to get athletes back in competition both more timely and safely. The importance of mental stability during a physical injury could not be more crucial. You would never allow an athlete to go back to competition with a broken collarbone. They are simply not ready. Think twice before sending an athlete – or yourself – into competition before mentally ready. You may not be able to see the injury, but that is an injustice of equal offense.
Effectiveness of psychological intervention following sport injury. Journal of Sport and Health Science, 1, 71-79.