Athletes strive to keep their bodies fit and healthy, but inevitably we all need to know the best ways to cope with injury in sport. Physical training, skills development, nutrition, regeneration/relaxation, and performance psychology are all centered on safety, health, and optimizing performance. The stronger and more flexible we are, the more prepared we are for the demands sport places on our bodies. Focusing on skills and developing them enhances our ability to safely execute risky movements and actions. Taking the time to regenerate and relax allows our muscles and mind to recover in order to prevent injury and prepare the body for the demands placed upon it. Using sport/performance psychology skills to sharpen the mind and connect physical to mental training ensures risks are minimal, actions are precise, and performance execution becomes elite. Nonetheless, our limited control of life means that we may nevertheless face unwanted outcomes that include injury, fear, regressions, and self-doubt.
Commit to Recovery
One of the first coping strategies, and likely the most important, to help with recovery from injury is to commit yourself to making the best of your recovery. Just as much as you have committed to your sport and taking care of your body to enjoy your passion, so must you commit to your recovery. This strategy will lead to the motivation, confidence, and persistence in all of the other coping strategies.
Set Recovery Goals
Setting progressive goals to achieve in your recovery helps you to track your improvements, remain motivated to get better, and measure progress over time. Most athletes are very familiar with the utility of goal setting in their sport performance and it is a small stretch to see its beneficial uses as a coping strategy for recovery. Hopefully, understanding of this mental skill will easily cross over from the domain of performance to the domain of recovery. Target goals that range from the daily to the life-long. Immediate and routine goals that can be accomplished every day and will become part of steps to one’s lifetime goal (albeit recovery goals are not a planned or foreseen one). Following medical advice and working through mental skills every day will increase the chances of shortened recovery time and limited regressions in performance from time missed.
Document Your Recovery
Another important and valuable coping strategy that is, unfortunately, often overlooked is journaling. Working through feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and treatments can be a lot easier and covered in greater depth when documented. Imagine how much easier it is to track your feelings and reflect on thoughts (especially when feelings range from disappointment, sadness, fear, and anger to encouragement, gratitude, happiness, and inspiration during the recovery process) when you can revisit them and become more aware of managing them. Reviewing progress from what you have written is much easier than simply trying to recall past feelings and thoughts. Clarity of thought and evolution of perceptions is dramatically enhanced through journaling. Some of the best times to journal are right after physical therapy, observed practices, fitness training, or strong emotions.
Focus on Your Mental Game
While your body is healing and physical activities are limited, the time to practice sport/performance psychology skills increases. Working through Self-talk, Imagery, Goal Setting, Awareness/Mindfulness, Attention/Focus, Intensity Regulation, Confidence, Motivation, and Team Cohesion allows for refining and enhancing these skills to help recovery, healing, and overall performance. Studies have shown that imagery and self-talk can significantly decrease recovery time and significantly reduce regressions in skills and performance through time missed. The approach to implementing these skills in recovery is very similar to their implementation in your sport performance. Specifically using imagery to see your body heal, imagine yourself performing in the future, and visualize the treatments is extremely effective and has been proven invaluable to athletes.
Utilize Social Support
Social support is another coping strategy that studies have shown to help improve recovery. Whether it is teammates, coaches, parents, friends, or medical providers, lending their support, the assistance provided can ameliorate the difficulties present. As each athlete is different it is important to help each social supporter understand the best ways to help. Where some athletes will prefer to have coaches check in on them and ask how progress is coming, other athletes will prefer to be left alone to recover and take control and responsibility with how engaged they are with coaches. As the process for recovery can be long and drawn out, social support can create a good dose of external motivation when needed.
Whether communicating with your respective sport staff, coaches, or teammates or the medical providers, it is vital to use open, honest, and direct communication. This helps everyone understand how you are progressing physically, mentally, and technically. As the central hub to the network of spokes intending to get you back to participation in a healthy and efficient way, the more clear with communication you can be the better the outcome. Some communication is difficult and it may seem easier to avoid, sugar coat, or omit certain information to different supporters, but this will only complicate things and possibly delay portions of the recovery.
Similarly, it is not just important to convey messages in an open, honest, and direct manner, it is also important to share (as needed) the information between supporters. The more the physical therapist has informed you of training parameters and the more this has been shared with coaches and teammates, the greater the likelihood that you remain within the scope of activities safe for you to handle. Alternatively, the observations and information flowing from coaches to athlete and then being shared with physical therapists, the more precise the medical provider’s decisions can be in formulating progressions and exercises.
Use the Injury Opportunity
Finally, a great healthy coping strategy for injury is engagement in sport related activities with uninjured areas of your body or mind. This can help change a mindset from “set back” to “opportunity.” If an athlete is dealing with a lower extremity injury, they may choose to focus on upper-body and torso strength and conditioning exercises. Another example may be an athlete with an injury that does not limit cardiovascular exercise but limits strength exercises, a fantastic opportunity to enhance the conditioning portion of fitness. By engaging in the exercises available, the athlete can retain fitness, enhance certain areas of their health/fitness, and support their own motivation, persistence, and focus. Certainly, clearing these exercises with the medical providers would be key.
Coping Strategies for Injury
- Commit to recovery
- Set progressive goals (focus on daily goals)
- Practice sport/performance psychology skills
- Employ social support
- Use open, honest, and direct communication (with social support and medical providers)
- Share information with everyone in your recovery team
- Engage in sport related activities (as appropriate)