One thing we all fear as athletes is being injured. No one ever thinks “Oh boy, I can’t wait to be injured”. The thought of having to miss sessions and potentially dampening progress is enough to bring sadness to the most mentally strong athletes. Being injured can fill you with doubts about your ability. It can even make you contemplate whether you’re ever going to perform in the way you used to. Additionally, once we are recovered from being injured, we may have an increased fear of being injured again.
What research says happens when we get injured
The research in injury has mainly focused on the negative outcomes that can occur. Injuries can leave us experiencing strong negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety and even anger. Research has found the more severe the injury, the more likely the person is to experience negative mood states, in particular depression.
Injured athletes may start experiencing unhelpful negative thoughts about their injury, this is called catastrophizing. These are thoughts that tend to relate to aspects of pain and the situation they athlete experienced it in. The athlete then tends to dwell on thoughts related to pain, in turn increasing the distress they already felt from the injury situation. Finally, the athlete begins to think about their believed lack of ability to cope with this pain effectively; resulting in feelings of helplessness. All of this can actually lead to the athlete experiencing an increase in pain. Ironically, going through this process can result in athletes being less likely to complete their exercises that help with rehabilitation; ultimately, negatively impact their rehabilitation progress.
What may be the blessings?
Despite the obvious negative impact injuries have on us, there may be some less obvious opportunities that rise from being injured. As athletes, we are aware of experiencing adversity. We also know that with adversity also comes the potential to grow and develop ourselves. Injury is no different. This is known as sport-injury-related growth, and research is starting to look into what this is and how we can promote this.
Some blessings athletes have said they experienced from being injured are as follows:
Increased knowledge about their anatomy and factors relating to injury risk.
An ability to understand, express and manage their emotions.
Strengthening their social network.
Increased free time to reflect on their sport, pursue general life goals, meet people and complete academic work (for student-athletes).
Greater ability to empathise with other injured athletes.
Increased mental toughness and perspective of how to cope with adversity.
Why do athletes experience growth?
There is a proposed process that leads to an athlete experiencing growth after being injured.
They develop an awareness of their own thoughts and begin to practice controlling their thoughts.
Following this, they start to change the way they view their injury. They start viewing it as an opportunity to develop themselves rather than a threat to their progress and goals.
From this different outlook, the athlete will experience positive emotions, such as hope, gratitude and interest.
These positive emotions serve to fuel helpful actions. The athlete may begin to seek out opportunities for growth, engage in meaningful reflections, display acts of kindness and seek knowledge they can act on.
How can we achieve growth?
A 2018 study looked to see whether it was possible to promote sport-injury-related growth. They found those who were asked to talk about their deepest thoughts and feelings relating to their injury into a tape recorder experienced more growth than a control group. Furthermore, this group experienced more growth than a group who were asked to write down their injury-related deepest thoughts and feelings. It was discussed that recording their thoughts and feelings allowed the athletes to see others and themselves in a different way. It also made them stop, reflect and act, which promotes the process that leads to growth following injury. It’s important to note that even writing their thoughts and feelings down helped individuals make sense of their experience and see themselves in a different light. Therefore, there is still use in using this method to overcome their injury experience.
When injured, make a list of goals you can achieve that can help you get better in your sport and general life.
Voice your deepest thoughts and feelings about your injury.
Take some time to look at your thoughts and invite yourself to take another perspective on your situation.
Look at what you can gain from this experience, not what you are missing out on.