Since ancient history, humans have been infatuated with the idea of competition and sport. For example, the Roman Coliseum, the Olympics, and even allusions to sports in the Bible. Today, sports have become an influential and social event for many individuals. Fans love the competition setting; the roaring sound of the crowd, the anticipation before the game begins, the smell of melted butter on the concession stand popcorn. But imagine the pressure each athlete experiences in their lifetime — on and off the field. They know how it feels to always have millions of eyes watching their every move. They are expected to portray this character, one who is invincible. They hear statements such as “play tough”, “suck it up” and “no pain, no gain” throughout their entire career which reinforces the importance of making a name for yourself, a name as someone who is invincible.
When you think of an athlete, what do you picture? Maybe you picture someone who is tall, broad, strong, extremely skilled — a superhuman. Now, what if that athlete were to become injured, what do you picture? We have all held our breath or covered our eyes as we saw an athlete knocked down on the field. The game comes to a halt, the athletic trainer sprints to the scene, the entire gym freezes. I am sure everyone remembers Kevin Ware’s gruesome leg injury from 2013. If you need a friendly reminder, feel free to google it. However, you might want to skip it if you have a weak stomach. Anyway, let’s get back to that picture you were imaging of an injured athlete. Are they still broad and strong, like a superhuman?
Of course, they are, but do they think so?
That’s the kicker. To athletes, an injury may be one of the biggest set-backs they can experience in their career. Yes, because of the work that comes with the physical injury itself, but also because of the impact injury has on the athlete’s sports psychology mindset. The effect injury has on the mind may be the Achilles heel when it comes to recovery because many athletes are either unaware of the impact or blindsided by the psychological weight that accompanies the injury. Altogether, it takes a toll on their body, mind, and time.
Athletic injury has become a focal point in sport psychology research. The process of being an injured athlete can be an emotional rollercoaster, followed by a grueling recovery period. During this time, factors such as burnout, anxiety, loss of identity, and depletion of confidence are possible (Wiese-Bjornstal, 2010), leading to a negative little voice whispering in the back of your head. This little voice becomes a coach and not a supportive one at that. Instead of motivating you or supporting your growth, this little voice tells you to “be careful”, “you’re weak”, or “you will never be the player you once were.” This little voice puts up walls, holds you back, wreaks havoc on your sports psychology mindset, and diminishes self-confidence.
But why? How does a physical injury impact your mindset in such a detrimental way? More so, how does your mindset impact your recovery and return to play?
When an athlete becomes injured, many aspects of their character are challenged. This includes the way they approach situations, their emotions, and even their behavior (Wiese-Bjornstal, 2010). When these combine, they create different behaviors, choices, and performance outcomes within the body. This is what alters the mindset of these individuals, building walls they need to knock back down in order to recover. With these mental pieces being affected, it can be tough to overcome these obstacles — especially while watching your teammates perform without you. It is normal for injured athletes to experience loss of identity or feeling social isolation from the team during their recovery period. This can cause overwhelming feelings of guilt. A lot of athletes experience feelings of letting their team, coaches, parents, or self down when they become injured. Can you blame them? It is tough to be stripped of your identity as an athlete and watching teammates climb their way to success while you feel you have taken two steps back and are crawling trying to catch up with them.
This is a very essential point: the importance of social support. I’ll say it again for everyone in the back: sports psychology tells us the importance of social support in athletic injury is crucial. Coaches, parents, significant others, teammates, sport medicine professionals, that means you. All of you. Previous sport psychology studies have resulted in social support being a vital factor throughout the entire injury and rehabilitation process. This means that athletes will seek and grow from the utilization of social support from different sources throughout the injury process — starting with parents or friends and seeking more from sport medicine professionals such as athletic trainers or sport psychologists as the rehabilitation process advances (Clement, Arvinen-Barrow, & Fetty, 2015). Simple as that, right? Sometimes, a hair rustle, a simple pat on the back, or even just saying “I know you can do this” makes all the difference in recovering from that psychological piece of injury. It helps regain belongingness and identity. When an athlete is struggling on the recovery rollercoaster. Sometimes all they need are passengers to keep them company throughout the ride.
Is there anything else that you picture when thinking of an athlete? What about the attitude they display? Maybe you see them as proud, determined, or confident; more superhuman qualities. This brings us to another key point embedded in athletic injury: confidence.
“When athletes are injured, it’s a lot more about psychology,” said sports psychologist Sylvain Guimond. When injured, it is hard not to feel as if you are back-tracking in your skills. This is incredibly frustrating — as you can imagine. You feel as though you were once a superhuman, now you are struggling just to jump for that block or grip that football. This is where the recovery roller coaster comes in. The number of peaks and valleys athletes may experience in their confidence throughout sport-injuries differs between individuals, but they are likely to be experienced. You may have a great day at physical therapy, which will make your confidence shoot up. But just one visit from that negative voice in your head can deplete that newly gained confidence.
“You can’t even do a jab-step anymore. Who do you think you are? You’re wasting your time.”
This lack of self-confidence can affect how efficient and effective the athlete’s recovery is along with future performance capabilities. Reflect for a moment.
Have you witnessed a talented player who gets injured and returns to play as a timid athlete? Chances are you have. I, for one, experienced this on my high school basketball team. A promising player became injured and she returned with that confidence-depleting voice in her head, fear, and doubts in her ability when she stepped into the gym again. Injuries are tough to come back from — it’s a fact. Even if your body is physically ready, you as an athlete may not be ready and carry with you a tainted mindset. Through sports psychology, we know that a lack of confidence can be very destructive. Think about point guard Deron Williams of the Brooklyn Nets for a moment. A past All-Star, he suffered a few different injuries during the season. Along with that came a season of him carrying an almost career-low shooting percentage. Although he did not blame his injuries for the decrease in performance, he strongly believed he did not deal with his injuries correctly mentally, which impacted his belief in himself. Williams’ mindset before his injuries was that he was unstoppable. As he was struggling with confidence, he stopped believing in himself.
“It’s just getting that confidence back where when I step on the court, people can’t guard me” he stated in 2014. As he worked with his injuries, his confidence differed from season to season. As his self-confidence increased, so did his performance. His overall shooting percentage went from 38.7% to 59%, which is the second-best shooting percentage of his career. As time went on, his injuries subsided, and his confidence regained its strength. As we look at his career, we see him take a ride on the recovery rollercoaster when it comes to confidence. He had one of the lowest “valleys” of his career, but he made his way back up to the “peak.”
Sports-injury is a very vulnerable time for many athletes. They are conditioned to be superhuman and portray a strong and ambitious persona. To show “weakness” of any aspect, physically or psychologically, is not in their character. That is when our job as fans and supporters is to lower the stigma and be accepting and empathetic in these situations. Support your athletes. Check-in on your teammates. Be understanding of the process. To be able to provide the psychological, social, and general support they need can ensure a healthy recovery process and a healthy athlete when they return.
The journey behind athletic injury is a rollercoaster, but that does not mean they are alone on the ride.
Clement, D., Arvinen-Barrow, M., & Fetty, T. (2015). Psychosocial responses during different phases of
sport-injury rehabilitation: A qualitative study. Journal of Athletic Training, 50(1). 95-104.
Wiese-Bjornstal, D. M. (2010). Psychology and socioculture affect injury rise, response and
recovery in high-intensity athletes: A consensus statement. Scandinavian Journal of
Medicine & Science in Sports, 20(2).