Getting back in the game.

Getting back in the game involves more than just physical recovery and training, it requires emotional recovery as well. Therefore, the mind is where the real recovery begins, where every athlete must work through and overcome distinct stages focusing on various emotions.

Getting Back In The Game Emotionally:

By Scott Revels PT, ATC/L, CSCS
Sports Driven PT

Where real recovery begins – The Mind

Getting back in the game is sometimes much more than just recovering from your physical injury. Total recovery involves the emotions, mind, body and spirit.

After physical rehabilitation is complete, the real work begins. Many athletes confess that getting their body ready for competition is the easy part. The real challenge is overcoming the fear of re-injury and the fear of not being able to compete at the same level prior to the injury.

Similar to the stages of recovery after the death of a loved one, emotional recovery from an injury has real distinct stages which may include but are not limited to: anger, denial, bargaining, fear, depression and finally, acceptance.

It is the final stage that is the most productive, but also the most difficult to achieve. Each stage may be experienced in different orders, but most athletes will follow a typical path. Often, an athlete will move very quickly through the stages on the high of support and shear determination, but in reality, without moving through each stage completely, the athlete is at risk of emotional set-backs.

Initial injury is typically accompanied by intense anger. No one plans to be injured and it is always accompanied by some form of anger. The “why me” question is very normal. Those closest to the athlete feel it, see it, and are typically the sounding board.

Closely related to anger is the denial stage, often these two stages are identical and the transition between the two stages is blurred by their similarity. The athlete cannot believe that this is happening to them and refuse the news despite the facts. Getting stuck in this stage can be very harmful to the recovery of the athlete. Camping out in this stage results in reduce effort and lost time in recovery due to lack of motivation and the sense that there is work to be done.

Once reality sets in and the athlete begins to realize that this is a real injury and they are not going to be able to just walk it off, bargaining sets in. Now, if they just work hard enough and are nice to their medical staff, they will be given a clean bill of health. The athlete will bargain with themselves, the medical staff, and their families. They will try many angels to hear what they want to hear.

Fear and depression begin to set in when reality begins to meet future expectations and aspirations. The athlete will begin to come to terms with their injury and will begin to wonder, “what is next?“ Is my career over? What if I cannot get back soon enough for the next season? Who is going to take my spot? What will happen after I get better? Will I injure myself again? The questions fly so rapidly that the athlete can become overwhelmed with the gravity of their situation and can quickly transition into depression.

This stage can be one of the most difficult stages for those closest to the athlete to witness as it seems that no amount of encouragement, discussion, and facts seem to make a dent in the emotional state of the athlete. This stage can be masked by enthusiasm, a powerful work ethic and intense mood swings. The athlete can act as if they are over their fear, until the first step back on the court, field, track or pool. It is this stage where many athletes get stuck and need one-on-one counseling possibly from a sport psychologist or a grief counselor, to help transition to the next stage.

In this stage, the athlete has come to terms with the injury and accepts that it is up to them to regain their prior level of fitness and that the past is the past and it is time to move forward. Many sports professionals label this as the “breakthrough,” where the athlete makes significant progress toward recovery. It is this stage where the professional staff play a key role in gradually transitioning the athlete from simple to complex sports tasks with specific goals and benchmarks. After completing simple and complex tasks and skills, the athlete can look back and see how far they have come and begin to regain their sense of accomplishment and confidence.

Athletes who have suffered significant injuries will say that “you never really forget, you just have to focus the fear into positive energy and strive for new goals.”

Getting back in the game is a process that needs time, patience, attention, and lots of work. Working through all the stages is important, expected and a normal part of the total recovery process. Seeking professional help is not a failure. It is a critical element to complete recovery.

Filed Under: Injury Prevention

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