Does your sport have a great risk of injury? And no, your sport does not have to be a contact sport. One wrong move and a gymnast, trapeze artist, or Nascar driver could be significantly hurt. How do you deal with that thought?! The stress of this can often lead to mental blocks for athletes and performers.
From having 9 broken bones, 2 shoulder dislocations, and 3 surgeries, I am personally invested into the phenomena of injury and the role that psychology plays. Hindsight is 20/20 and you won't believe what I uncovered! As grateful as I am that these injuries provided me endless opportunities of learning discipline, resiliency and other strong character traits, we would love to avoid injuries at all possible costs. Let's be honest, we signed up to compete, not get injured! This blog will highlight how sport psychology strategies can PREVENT injury, how you can train DURING an injury, and psychologically RECOVER from injury.
1.) Mindset Prevention: What if I told you that your mindset on being "injury prone" or being afraid of it actually increases the probability of injury? Engaging in a negative ideation of your own "pre-destined" characteristic as a part of your identity can be detrimental. "This is who I am and I'm just going to have to keep bouncing back." It actually started at birth with a broken collar bone and was a "joke" that I came into the world injured and set up my future of injuries. This ideation served two mental worlds athlete's should avoid: fixed mindset, and a negative self-fulfilling prophecy. A fixed mindset is seeing yourself and the world as what it is and there is nothing you can do to influence, change, or grow from it. The self-fulfilling prophecy in short can be summed up as "I think therefore I am." It is the belief that you are the expectation you have set for yourself or others have set for you. This can be a wonderful concept in positive situations, but believing the narrative that you are injury prone will condition your mind and body to seek actions that put you in harms way more than actions focused on task execution.
2.) Training While Injured!: The mind and the body constantly communicate. So when your body is healthy and you are training your physical skills such as practicing free throws or your gymnastics routine, it is communicating to the mind the motor control necessary to execute. What if you reversed the process? Train the repetitions mentally so your body physically adapts to the skill. This is proven to work through visualization training. Studies show that when engaging in guided and routine visualization training , athletes can improve their motor skill learning and ultimately execution. Will you physically have to re-adapt to the demands of your sport when you recover from injury? Sure! A hurdler who hasn't run in a few weeks or months could be sore and not be as fast or fit as they once were. But participating in a structure imagery regimen can make the accuracy and timing of their jumps more accurate, thus making the recovery process shorter to reach levels they were once obtaining.
3.) Mental Recovery to Progress: Let's face it. We would all love to jump right back to where we left off, but fact is there is an adaptation time. So instead of looking at the top of the mountain from base camp wishing you were up there, it's time to narrow our focus on what is right in front of us. Identify the areas of your rehab and journey to health. Process goals are going to weight far more in importance than outcome goals. Find success and value in the small wins of progress to achieving your health, whether that is greater mobility in your knee, feeling stronger in your hip, or just abiding by the exercises the physical therapist or medical personnel have given you. Ok, now we're cleared to compete and jumping into full routines and team exercises others have been playing while you were injured. Expectation and comparison are often the thieves of joy. Identifying those moments where we uphold our standard to pre-injury is setting us up for disappointment. Have a systematic goal setting structure based off of highly controllable and influential actions will not only elevate progress, but keep a clear mind and passionate heart in the process.
Mental Injury Checklist: The time has come to piece it together!
Stop believing and thinking of narratives preparing you for injury and downfall. Our mind attracts what we feed it. You acknowledge that injury is a reality of any sport and accidents happen, but focus on the task execution, your strength and coordination to execute that task, and you set yourself up for more success!
Mental rehearsal and imagery training can be your superpower. Many athletes just stop 100% when they are injured. Thinking there is nothing they can do now. WRONG! You can train and get repetitions. But just like physical training, this mental training has to be systematic, structures, and is better done when guided.
Lastly, give yourself some grace to recover, focus on smaller more controllable actions on the process back to health and performance. This ultimately will channel your focus to maximize your time and effort and you will increase speed of recovery and execution.
Obviously we don't want to be injured. But remember this injury happened for you and not to you. There are opportunities still from this opportunity to train, build resilience, discipline and ultimately gratitude for your body and your mind!