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.
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