Nobody wants to think about it. Nobody wants to go through it. Getting injured is one of the most challenging things you can face as an athlete. When you’re active, injury is a part of the risk that comes with using your body and pushing yourself to your potential. If you’re fortunate enough to call yourself an athlete, it means that at some point you will probably be dealing with an injury. Throughout the entire process of your injury, you will go through a roller coaster of emotions. From the moment your injury occurs, to the moment you get back to competition, you will have experienced hundreds if not thousands of shifts in your emotional state. Not only will you go through all of these emotions throughout your injury, you might go through all of them in one day!
Research has found that when athletes sustain an injury, they experience a sense of loss that is the same as going through the Stages of Grief (Kubler-Ross, 1969; Rotella, 1985). When you are injured, you lose a part of yourself, your athletic identity. When you can’t participate in the sport you love, it feels like a piece of you is missing. At any given point throughout your injury, you will find yourself in one of the five Stages of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Through every major and minor injury I’ve personally encountered, I’m amazed to see myself go through this process each time. In fact (and this is 100% true) as I was writing about the Stages of Grief here, I recognized that I’ve been in denial about a knee issue I’ve had going on for a while and stopped writing and forced myself to call and make a doctor’s appointment!
Having been injured a few times myself, I can tell you that staying positive the entire time is not only unhealthy, it’s impossible. But there are times when staying stuck in the negative thoughts and emotions will hold you back from healing and progressing through your injury so you can get to acceptance. You can’t always remove the stressors, but you can empower yourself with some coping strategies to better navigate the challenges that will come. Here are three important things to remember:
Let yourself be upset
When the emotions come, allow yourself to feel them. They are ALL going to come out one way or another, and if you fight against feeling them, they might inadvertently come out sideways onto people you care about.
Give yourself a break
It’s hard not to gauge your feelings of success based on what you were capable of doing before you were injured. Give yourself a break. You’re doing amazing. Make sure you are gauging your feelings of confidence and success relative to where you are right now and your current goals.
Getting injured is stressful. Don’t ride the roller coaster alone. You need to make sure you seek out and ask for the support you need to help you deal with the emotional roller coaster.
It’s normal to have concerns and doubts about your road to recovery. It’s frustrating to not be able to use your body the way you want to. It can feel isolating and lonely to be away from your team and the culture of your sport. It can be upsetting to feel like everyone else is gaining fitness while you’re losing yours. It can be scary to wonder if you can trust your body and if you’ll be able to compete to the same level as you did before your injury. Your ability to handle the stress that comes with being injured is affected by the coping skills you have. You have a choice to make. You can sit along for the ride as your body recovers, or you can be proactive about both your physical and your mental recovery.
Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On death and dying. New York: Macmillan.
Rotella, B. (1985). The psychological care of the injured athlete. In Bunker, L.K. (ed.), Sport psychology: Psychological considerations in maximizing sport performance (pp.273-287). Ann Arbor, MI: Mouvement.