Injuries. One of the truly ever-present villains in sport. It seems no matter how conditioning and preparation continues to improve, injuries continue to be a part of the business. Beyond the obvious physical discomfort that comes with the injury itself, there are also a series of psycho-social challenges that can arise as well. Given the somewhat unavoidability of injuries in sports, we wanted to share some different thoughts and tips on how to manage their impact.
First, let’s start with identifying what it might look like. While no two injuries are completely the same, there are some key signs that may indicate that a person is experiencing mental ill-health. Some of those common signs include mood fluctuations (including low mood, fear, stress, anger, grief), changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, irritability, social withdrawal and increase in substance use. Some additional sport-specific behaviours to be aware of include: fixation with return to play (in an all-consuming way), over-working physically to compensate (excessive rehab), hyper-sensitivity to other injuries/pains, and withdrawal from team warm-ups and social events.
Next, let’s discuss why the effects of injury can be so impactful.
One – Connection. Sport is such a powerful vehicle for connecting people. It provides an environment for people to share their common interests, allows them to work together toward common goals, and provides general company and support through time spent together. When sportspeople are grounded by injury, those points of engagement can be challenged, resulting in people feeling disconnected, isolated and potentially questioning their sense of belonging.
Two – Identity. When people engage with sports, to a degree they are exploring, expressing and affirming different parts of their identity. The teams they follow, the codes they play, even the positions they hold down contribute to defining them as a person. When injuries restrict us from training and competing, the connected pillars of our identity can become challenged, resulting in us questioning our purpose and even value as a person. Consider this – Am I really still a tennis player if I can’t get on the court and play tennis?
Three – Positive outcomes. To put it simply, we play sports because we get a lot out of it. Whether its health, social, personal development or even just for enjoyment, when we sustain injuries and are unable to play, these benefits can go missing.
Finally, let’s explore some of the different strategies and responses we can implement to try and support ourselves in the event that we were to find ourselves injured.
1. Keep yourself involved (Connection)
a. Whether on the field or off, everyone has a role to play. Sit in on coaching meetings, run some training drills, record statistics, or even cut up the half time oranges. Whatever you do, avoid avoiding and try your best to maintain connection. This will help you when you want company, support, advice or even practical help like lifts to the game!
2. Remember - you are not your sport (Identity)
a. While playing sport may represent an important part of your identity, it’s not the only part. Your performance outcomes don’t define your value as a person, so remember to pay attention to the other things that also contribute to who you are – like your values, relationships, interests, hobbies and other skills. By extension, it then stands to reason that it’s also important to continue investing in the parts of your identity outside of sports. This will help you see the diversity in yourself when competing may be challenged by things like injury.
3. Don’t stop doing things that are good for you! (Positive outcomes)
a. Knowing that some of the positive benefits of sport may be temporarily challenged while you’re injured, try your best to find substitutes where you can. Try exploring alternative forms of exercise (like Pilates), attending training and gameday (to maintain connection with friends), or developing new skills that could compliment your game when you’re able to return (for personal development and mastery – could even be something like communication to be a better on-field leader). But most importantly, make sure you’re still finding ways to enjoy yourself, whether that’s by listening to music, playing video games or watching live sport!
Some additional tips to consider:
4. Understand your injury
a. Actively learn about your injury and the way it is impacting you. Ask questions of your physio’s, do your own research online, and learn from peers and professionals who may have experienced similar injuries. This will help you retain some sense of ownership and control over the situation.
5. Notice the Shifts
a. As the saying goes, ‘if you can name it, you can tame it’. Try to identify how you are feelings, as this will help you address exactly how the injury is impacting your mental health. There are some activities that can help like journaling (can be as simple as keeping a notes page on your phone with random thoughts), check-in’s with your trusted people (friends, families, coaches) and seeking out professional support (working with a therapist).
6. Manage Your Load (mentally as well as physically)
a. There is both a physical and mental load that comes with injury, so it makes sense that may be feeling heavy, overwhelmed or burnt-out. Create mental breaks by taking deliberate time away from stressful and demanding commitments. If you need a night off training, take it. If you need to clear your head, go for a walk. If you need to relax, try having a bath!
Injuries can be extremely challenging times for sportspeople, both physically and mentally. The good news is that there are things we can do to support our mental health throughout the journey. Identify your signs, appreciate that the impact can be heavy, and implement some deliberate strategies to try and combat the challenges that have come with the injury. We’re not here to pretend that it’s easy or fun, but given the unavoidable nature of injuries in sport, it’s important to consider how we can structure up to support ourselves in the event that it does happen to us.