Injured Athletes – How do they Cope?

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Injury is part and parcel of modern day sport. Whether they are annoying little muscle strains or broken bones, injury is common for the majority of athletes. For athletes who suffer from long term injuries, how are they able to maintain a positive frame of mind while being away from their favourite sport for what can be a lengthy period of time?
One of the biggest contributing factors is the ability to implement coping strategies for injured athletes and to assist in their re-introduction into sport. This article looks at some of the issues that injured athletes face and various coping strategies that can benefit injured athletes and help with the recovery process.

Issues facing injured athletes

You’ve been involved in your sport year in year out and it has become an integral part of you. As you’ve matured, your strength, endurance and skills have grown. Then all of a sudden, whether through competition or practice, you fall foul of a long term injury. Apart from the obvious physical restrictions that it can cause, there are a number of psychological and emotional issues that can arise as a result of this.

Loss of identity
Longer term injuries can cause an athlete to lose their sense of identity; Sport is such a large part of their lives and suddenly they are unable to train or compete. With their long-term investment and commitment of time, energy and pain over the years, sport has become an integral part of who they are. It’s how they see themselves and how others see them.

Self-esteem is also greatly affected. For most serious athletes, sport provides them with a continual source of positive reinforcement and feedback. There is enjoyment and self-satisfaction in mastering new skills, overcoming ever more challenging obstacles and progressively getting stronger and better. Furthermore, the outside recognition of their accomplishments by friends, family and their community make them feel purposeful and confident.

Sport is also a constructive method of dealing with stress for athletes. Training and playing can help an athlete deal with stress and anxiety. When they can’t train or compete they can become anxious and stressed and find it hard to cope.

In the case of long term injuries, it can take an athlete a long time to accept their situation. Worrying about losing their contract and their career choices can be overwhelming and impede recovery.

Sadness, Anger and Frustration
The thought of possibly not competing again and facing into a long recovery process can get an athlete down. They can become angry with their body for letting them down and become very frustrated with their situation and the things that they can no longer do effectively.

Fear of re-injury
When returning to training confidence can be affected and fear of re-injury can affect an athlete’s ability to get back to pre-injury performance levels.

Coping Strategies

Using imagery and psychological training
When one is injured, an athlete faces at least one, if not all of the above psychological and emotional factors that can overwhelm them due to the internal and external losses they are going through. So with the negative affect injury can have on athlete psychology, what can they do to keep their mind set positive? Research has shown that psychological interventions can help athletes to recover more quickly from injuries and experience more positive mood states during recovery and maintain confidence. Some interventions focused on maintaining confidence and developing resilience. Imagery was the main technique used in some of these studies. Past research has shown imagery to be a flexible and useful tool that is related to the development and maintenance of self-confidence. In addition, imagery interventions have previously been related to enhanced recovery times. Although psychologists are not exactly clear how imagery works, it is highly likely that the mind-body connection is facilitated via the development of a mental blueprint of performance. Some of these studies have claimed that to facilitate self-confidence, the content of the imagery sessions should involve the athlete seeing him or herself mastering difficult situations and overcoming obstacles. Imagining a positive outcome is very important as this is what boosts self-confidence in much the same way as achieving real goals.

Emotional Support
Some athletes have reported the role of family and friends as being very important in coping with long-term injuries. They claim family members and team mates have a large role to play in terms of the emotional aspect of recovering from injury. The social support available to athletes has a large influence on how an athlete attempts to cope and can allow an easier and smoother return to playing. Social support from the coach, physiotherapist, teammates, friends and family of the injured athlete is so significant that it can facilitate or debilitate rehabilitation. There is also evidence that good social support from coaches, where a concerted effort is made to maintain close and frequent personal contact with the athlete and an active interest in the individual’s recovery is paramount.

Other Methods
There are a number of other methods that athletes can use in an attempt to cope with injury, for example,

  • accepting responsibility for their injury,
  • maintaining a positive attitude,
  • getting support from peers where possible,
  • setting appropriate and achievable goals,
  • maintaining levels of fitness while injured,
  • taking an active part in their own healing and
  • above all, being patient.

Injury in sport is something that nobody likes to see. There are many negative connotations associated with it, both psychologically and physically. There is a vast amount of work required for an athlete to get back to their original performance level. From this piece we can see that there are effective and proven coping strategies available for athletes returning from injury.

It’s always hard to deal with injuries mentally, but I like to think about it as a new beginning. I can’t change what happened, so the focus needs to go toward healing and coming back stronger than before– Carli Lloyd

Coaches’ attitudes to injury and injury prevention

Coaches are key figures in sporting environments and their techniques and attitudes can be pivotal in preventing injury. A 2021 qualitive study Irish field hockey aimed to investigate the attitudes of field hockey coaches to injury and injury prevention. Thirteen field hockey coaches from the amateur Irish Hockey League were interviewed. The interview guide was formulated based on the results of a questionnaire to gain an initial understanding of the participant’s attitudes towards injury prevention.

The study showed that in general the attitudes displayed by the coaches suggested that they are injury prevention focused and appreciate the concept of implementing injury prevention methods. The coaches also insisted that the health and well-being of the athletes was the key factor in their decision making process. However, limitations in their skills, knowledge and resources often restrict their ability to implement injury prevention strategies successfully. In addition, athletes themselves often represented a barrier to injury prevention strategies through their limited understanding of injury and injury prevention, as well as other commitments they have as an amateur such as work and school. The study concluded that while coaches can play a key role in the implementation of injury prevention strategies, there is also a requirement to examine how system level barriers to injury prevention can be reduced.

Injuries can be incredibly frustrating for athletes and they can be the deciding factor driving them to give up on their sport. The continued support from their coaches and encouragement during injury can make a huge difference in the recovery and return to sport process.

No athlete is truly tested until they’ve stared an injury in the face and come out on the other side stronger than ever Click To Tweet

About Metrifit

Athlete well-being is at the forefront of Metrifit. Using the data from Metrifit can help coaches and other staff monitor, evaluate and make the right decisions for their athlete’s well-being and performance on a day to day basis. Metrifit’s approach not only covers the physical requirements of a particular sport but also helps the coach derive the benefits of other factors that have a significant influence on an athlete’s well-being: training, body, nutrition, mind, and sleep. Daily wellness questionnaires and Session RPE are just some of the modules included. Metrifit’s lifestyle profiling is scientifically supported and offers a practical way to assess and improve lifestyle strategy for your team. In this short video, we explain how Metrifit works for both the athlete and the coach.

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How Injuries Affect Athletes and Helpful Coping Strategies

The mental side of athletic injuries – A Coach’s and Athlete’s Guide to rebounding from injury

Denial and depression: recovering from long-term injury isn’t just about the body

How Athletes Mentally Cope With Injury by Patrick Cohn

Psychological Issues Related to Illness and Injury in Athletes and the Team Physician- a Consensus Statement

The psychological response to injury in student athletes: a narrative review with a focus on mental health by Margot Putukian

Effectiveness of psychological intervention following sport injury by M.Schwab Reese, RyanPittsinger and JingzhenYang

Mindset and return to sport – Ready, steady, go! by Tracy Ward

Psychological Response to Injury, Recovery, and Social Support: A Survey of Athletes at an NCAA Division I University by Courtney A. Klenk

Coaches’ attitudes to injury and injury prevention: a qualitative study of Irish field hockey coaches by Huw Rees et al

How to Cope With a Sports Injury by Elizabeth Quinn

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