All the conditioning, practice drills and strategy sessions you engage in will prepare you for some tough competition. But they won't prepare you for the worst-case: injury. The possibility is always there but until it happens to you, it's not something you devote too much time or thought to. Suddenly you find yourself in a very different routine--doctor's visits, possible medical intervention or surgery, physical therapy. Your focus is on physical repair of the injured part, but don't forget there is more to the puzzle. What goes on in your mind when injury strikes needs just as much attention. The mind-body connection is vital when healing in the body needs to take place. The physical healing process following injury works in stages, and with each stage are psychological factors that should be recognized.
The outcome of any sport injury rehabilitation (SIR) program is four-fold:
Briefly, consider there are three phases of SIR. Phase 1 begins at the onset of injury. Physically there is pain, swelling. Psychologically there is anxiety about the unknown--what did I hurt? How bad it it? Can we fix it? What needs to be done? Will I ever play again? Also you may feel a lot of negativity--responsibility or guilt for "letting it happen." "If I only I had done this instead of that." "I am letting my team down."
Phase 2 is the longest phase, both physically and psychologically. It is when the rehab begins. Medical intervention (surgery, cast, brace, etc.) has been done and it is time to get strength and full range of motion back. Psychologically this is a tough time. There is anxiety that the process is taking too long, and motivation to do the necessary exercises decreases. There may be more negative self-talk. "I'm never going to feel better!"
By the time Phase 3 arrives you are ready to actually practice sport-specific skills. You may return to play in a limited capacity, eventually fully able to play. In this phase, the anxiety takes the form of a lack of confidence, fear the injury may recur. Fear you may not play up to the level you were before. You may find yourself replaying the injury over and over in your head. You may be hesitant, tentative and possibly strain something else in your efforts to keep your newly mended part safe. Consider Washington Capitals forward Brooks Laich, who, after sitting out a frustrating season mending a groin injury, returned to the ice and promptly "tweaked" the other hip flexor. Likely he was a little hesitant and perhaps overcompensated, resulting in a new injury.
You can see how the mind can throw obstacles in your path to full healthy recovery. The good news, however, is that if you pay attention, you can make your mind work for you, not against you.
Go back to Phase 1. The anxiety and negativity exists because suddenly you are in a situation you are unfamiliar with, not in control of. You need to take control back, to educate yourself about exactly what happened. Work with your trainer/doctor/physical therapist. Ask lots of questions. Have them show you pictures of the injured area. See what yours looks like now, and what a healthy one should look like. Learn why they are choosing a particular course of action. Understand how and why their interventions work, each step of the way. This is not the time to be passive in your treatment.
During Phase 2, it is vital that you stay motivated. The number one proven effective method for sustaining motivation is goal-setting. Either with your practitioner, coach, or on your own, set goals for your progress and ultimate return to play. Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III, when beginning his long road back from a knee injury, changed the passcode on his phone to the date of the first game of the next season, when he fully expected to be able to participate. Set long-term and short-term goals. Whenever you are feeling down or discouraged, engage in positive self-talk. Tell yourself you are constantly progressing. Make sure you have a support system of family, friends, coaches, and go to them for encouragement as often as you need. Imagine yourself strong and healthy again. If you are feeling isolated from the rest of the team, do what you can to stay part of the group. Attend practices whenever you can, even just to watch. Attend meetings or social gatherings. The point is to stay engaged.
Once Phase 3 arrives, see yourself being successful. If (and when) the replay of your injury seems on endless loop, stop yourself and replace it. Make a new "highlight film" in your mind. One where you escape injury, make the right moves, emerge unscathed and victorious. Make a point of repeating this film over and over.
SIR is never a one-size-fits-all process. There are often setbacks, curve balls. But if you can stay mentally strong and in control, you can handle anything. You will actually come out on the other side even stronger and more confident than you have ever been.
Knowing that the possibility of injury is part of any sports endeavor doesn't have to keep you from fully performing. With a strong mind, you will defeat injury; it will not defeat you.
Female athletes are disciplined, determined, tough and competitive. They face challenges head-on, constantly adapt to greater workloads and monitor their gains and performances closely. They are in control. Until a challenge comes in the form of the joyous celebration of pregnancy. Their best traits are encroached upon by new fears, threats to identity, confidence, and difficulties with maintaining high training levels.
What is happening?
The athlete mom-to-be sometimes gets the feeling, and rightly so, that changes are happening in her body that are beyond her control. Nature is in charge of this phase of development, and this can be scary for someone who is used to being so highly in tune with her body, every movement or sensation.
Who Am I?
Ask an athlete who she is, and she will probably answer in terms of her sport. "I am a runner." "I am a soccer player." "I am a fitness professional." Her identity and her sport are one. Now she faces a crisis of sorts--"If I can't participate in my sport now while I'm pregnant, who am I?" Similar thoughts present when an athlete is injured and unable to work out with the team or at the level she is used to.
Will I Ever Play Again?
With all the changes her body is experiencing, and her need to slow down looming, the athlete inevitably starts to think, "Will I ever be able to compete at my highest level again?" For many, this 9-month period is the first time they have taken time off from heavy training in years, or ever! Having been taught that she must keep training, keep pushing in order to make gains in performance, the forced slow down can wreak havoc with confidence. The fear that every athlete who isn't pregnant will surpass her is a constant gnawing thought. She fears she will be left behind and never catch up.
Safety is absolutely paramount at this time for both athlete and baby. As per ACOG recommendations, exercise is important for optimum benefit. However, there are limitations to activity choices and intensity. The athlete mom-to-be can feel very limited in how she can train, and may think it is worthless to even try since the level is so low.
There is good news. The best, of course, is that at the end of this journey, this relative blip in time, a Mom is born! A whole new adventure awaits. The better news is, the athlete reemerges with renewed vigor and confidence, having faced the greatest physical challenge nature can provide her. The key to this result is preparation, planning and focus on the positive during the pregnancy.
Do Your Research
Find out what is happening as the baby develops and grows. Understand your limitations and why they exist. Find other athletes who have experienced pregnancy. Ask lots of questions. Read anecdotal evidence of mom athletes who have returned to play another day, seemingly having not missed a beat.
Have a Plan
There is no better way to maintain a level of control and confidence than to set goals. Set short-term goals for yourself in your training. Consider your limitations and plan accordingly. For example, a runner used to 50-mile weeks may set a more reasonable goal of fewer miles or slower speed. This time can also be a great opportunity for cross-training. The body responds enthusiastically to new challenges, and even at a low intensity, a new or different activity can be a big boost both physically and mentally. Thinking ahead, too, planning for how you can work out when baby is here, can reduce anxiety as well.
Remember Who You Are
This is important: You are more than your sport. consider other aspects of your life, your personality, your activities. It is not necessary to remove yourself from the sport you identify with; to the contrary, if it makes you feel better, stay involved in some way. If you are on a team, find another way to contribute. Continue to attend practices, albeit on the sidelines. Offer a new perspective now that you have one as a spectator. Staying involved can help you feel less like you are being left behind.
See What You Will Be
Throughout your pregnancy, maintain your focus on your long-term goals, be it a certain level of fitness, competition or successful performance. Use imagery and visualization to see yourself where you want to be. See yourself crossing the finish line, scoring the winning basket, on the medal stand with shiny gold hanging around your neck. See it, and you can achieve it.
The challenges for the female athlete during pregnancy are many, but are not insurmountable. Remember, you are tough, disciplined and in great condition. Your body is up to the challenge and so are you. The sacrifices you make are ones you will never regret.
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