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Returning From Injury?

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

Why Controlling Your Expectations & accepting your feelings dnd emotions are key for a successful return to play.

The ability to be mentally tough and show resilience is vital especially in the context of rehabilitation. Ask any athlete that has had a significant injury, the mental toll is hard to deal with as the arduous and monotonous torture of rehab and non-competition tests one resolve.

And of course, there is the battle of resilience and being mentally ready for once an athlete returns to training and competition

Sport in a contemporary context is far more professional than previous eras, however, it has become more demanding. From scheduling through corporate puppeteering to the actual game, where sport in general is far more physically and mentally demanding on players, as competition in any sport is faster, athletes are better and winning is driven to the point that it’s the only thing that matters.

Winning is the measuring stick in all forms of sport.

Sport whilst it’s entertainment is about performance first and foremost. And with that, only the athletes that are truly mentally and physically ready often survive.

So in the context of injury, It’s rare that an athlete will never through their athletic career without having to overcome the setbacks and challenges of injury, whether thats prevention, or rehab.

This article focuses on the resilience and the mindset needed for rehab.

Coming back from injury and picking up from where you left off at the best of times is tough. The athlete goes through a rollercoaster of motivation and arousal levels and it can take a toll.

Whilst sustaining and effectively rehabbing an athletic injury is an experience loaded with intense emotions, there are positives and negatives for the athlete when they endure this emotional and mental rollercoaster.

First and foremost, the athlete needs a great team of experts around them.

If you as the athlete do not have a positive and experienced support system in place, be it physically, emotionally and financially, then know and be prepared to make this process harder for yourself and others around you.

An athlete needs to have this in place. Period. I can’t stress this enough. Support systems are vital for athletes to succeed. They can’t do it alone.

Experience and hindsight is a wonderful thing, ask any athlete that has recovered successfully from injury, the common theme evident is the support they have around them. From the sport scientist, to the rehab coordinator, to the dietician and sport psychologist, to the player welfare manager, these experts all have a vital role to play. But more important is the family, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends, mums and dads, brothers, sisters and mentors that are emotionally provide the human need of connection especially in the midst of a struggle.

In tough times, one of the most important things for a person is the need to have deep, meaningful, personal connections.

The athlete needs positive people around them. Period.

When an athlete returns to competition, several things may occur. This all depends on age, experience and emotional maturity. The athlete feels not only a sense of relief, but the athlete will then fall into the trap of both expectation, fear and overthinking

So let’s dive in and talk about a few of these feelings.

As stated earlier, returning to competition for an injured athlete will see a collection of both positive and negative emotions.

Occasionally these can be overwhelming. They come out of the blue and without the necessary preparation or counsel, the athlete is ill equipped to handle these.

Often in elite sport, the athlete will have great people around them as I mentioned above and will keep the player in the right head space. These people are highly skilled and trained to deal with this.

But there are many athletes who are not part of a club that is not well resourced. Or they are an athlete that is not part of a team so they don’t have access to these experts. There are so many barriers to accessing this care, from financial, to educational to the athlete training, or living in a regional area.

Some of the more common thought patterns are the following;

Impatience –the injured athlete commonly will want to get back playing ASAP. Of course, it’s what you want to do. Mistakenly though, they will expect to return to their previous level of play. Notwithstanding that even though the athlete may not have been through enough rehabilitation, strengthening and physical conditioning to regain the optimal level of fitness or practice. This may be a significant source of frustration for the injured athlete.

Fear – Fear of re-injury is the most common emotion of injured athletes. Thoughts of re-injury destroy confidence. Pre-emptive thinking of how the injured body part may hold up can be tough to deal with and be problematic for the returning athlete. Not only can being overly cautious ead to re-injury, it effects on field performance

Anxiety – Anxiety is there for an athlete even when they are not injured. Returning from injury elevates levels of nervousness which directly interfere with performance and thus results in pressure in making a successful comeback. Moreover, it effects the athlete mentally to get in the right mindset to have the ability to focus on just playing the game, enjoying what is to come, being grateful for being out there and just simply focusing on the process.

Ambiguity and Indecision – Naturally, the athlete will go through questions. This draws on fear surrounding the outcomes of questions concerning performing and being able to perform consistently at the same level of play, or re-claiming their status on the team, regaining form and overall fearing embarrassment if things go wrong. This uncertainty can be a major obstacle for some athletes to deal with.

Pressure – An athlete will no doubt feel pressure. Naturally standards, team results and generally wanting to feel that they can contribute to a team or if in an individual setting, getting back to winning asap. The athlete internally will develop much hype and look forward to returning at the expense of managing the return successfully. The much-anticipated return to action can also be factored by not wanting to let teammates, coaches and the club down. This pressure accumulates and can severely increase if not handled correctly alter the injured athlete’s successful return to competition.

Apprehension – Following fear will be a level of apprehension as some injured athletes will just be very cautious and naturally apprehensive due to being in the unknown. Especially if this is a new injury or the athlete has never gone through the process before, the possibility of experiencing pain again in the previously injured body part and fearing more potential long-term damage is real and should be validated. Thoughts about their career, or should I give it one more week, or am I seeing the right rehab specialist instigate analysis paralysis.

Excitement – Once the athlete knows that the rehab is fully ticked off, excitement builds. The feeling exhilaration and relief of being back to competing after small or long layoff is strong. Especially if the athlete is a passionate person and loves what he or she does, there will be no shortage of enthusiasm for being hyped up. Unfortunately, all this nervous energy and not managing this can be too much, which can set the stage for an unsatisfactory return.

Happiness – The feeling that the athlete should be striving for and one that will eventually come once a return is done. Normally for athletes who are injured, they train twice as hard, so returning to competition brings joy. Returning after a long break can be a positive for some athletes and return as better people, teammates and players. successful rehab is an emotional and physical workout and you come out stronger and thus, the extreme joy of being back is a great and accompanied b positive emotion.

As a mature, developed athlete, you know that all emotions affect your recovery and performance and general well-being. Often for younger athletes, they take their body for granted. Rehab times are shorter, and the body heals quicker. You also have lots of years ahead. But ask any athlete in the twilight of their career, this perception shifts drastically.

Understanding that anxiety and general negative emotions can increase muscle tension and affect how you breathe. This too release cortisol, the stress hormone. Stress affects how you function as a human and as an athlete. If these emotions are not check in check, not only can your performance suffer but there is an increased chance of re-injury. Managing these emotions is tough to do even if you are not an elite athlete. Many people lack the skills to handle challenges or pressure.

A mindset that some athletes adopt is simplicity. The athlete after an injury, will want to realize that its just like any other game, it like your first competition back when you were young. Returning from injury is no different than any other game. Easier said than done. But get the right people around you and you can normalize and reduce expectation which is key . The coach becomes very important in this space. They should not place any extra responsibility on the athlete.

Consequently, by normalizing the game and reducing pressure and expectation, stress levels, uncertainty can all be managed correctly and reduced. The athlete needs to be relaxed and in flow so that they can enjoy the occasion and can focus on the process of playing. This unknowingly will minimize muscle tension, get rid of mental clutter, achieve better breathing patters and provide more blood flow and oxygen to the brain and body. It simply allows the athlete to play and enjoy themselves and build their form which results in a successful return to action.

Tips to Return from an Injury and keeping emotions in check:

1. Learning to controlling negative emotions is paramount

2. Acknowledging the reality of your situation shows maturity and strength

3. Do not play the victim

4. Work to come back better – see the positives in the setback

5. To keep your emotions in check, concentrate on your pregame routine

6. Let go of any expectations concerning performance

7. Do not expect to perform at your best

8. Focus on being grateful and enjoying being back out there again

9. Acknowledge that you need to build your confidence one session, one day, one game at a time.

10. Know that you won’t have superior confidence and that okay. Know that the uncertainty of how you will perform and handle the competition is was makes it fun, you won’t be great right out of the gate and that’s okay.

11. Be patient and have the mindset that you need to earn your confidence one day at a time and your form and performance won’t be handed to you. Have the champion mindset

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