LHS Athlete: Exploring The Psychology Of Sports Injury

Pop. Snap. Crack. Three sounds that an athlete never wants to hear. The demanding task of being an athlete comes with many physical impacts, but also psychological effects. Studies have found that those injured through sports are more likely to struggle with frustration, anger and depression. They feel as though they have lost part of their identity. They must go from being active everyday to sitting on the bench, unable to do the things that make them feel whole. It is known that pain comes with both a physical and an emotional experience, whether you stub your toe or get a paper cut, or go through a spinal cord injury or tear a ligament, you will experience both pain and anger or frustration. A physical injury can have the same effects as rejection or other emotional pain, therefore it has become clear that it is critical to focus on both physical and mental rehabilitation for an injured athlete. Without this side of rehabilitation, the injured player may never fully recover mentally or physically.

When one is physically injured, the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex are activated. These same activations occur when you experience emotional pain or rejection by peers or loved ones. It is no surprise, then, that an injury would take its toll both physically and emotionally on an athlete. There are various aspects to the emotional side of physical injuries, for athletes especially. Not only must you deal with the physical pain, but also the pain of missing out on something that you love.

In one study at NCAA Division 1 University, it was found that frustration and anger were the most common feelings experienced by athletes who had been injured. Anger and frustration with a situation is one of the hardest things to overcome. One can not turn back time and somehow avoid their injury, as much as they may want to. There is not much left to do than accept the situation for what it is and find your way of coping with it. If they are unable to do that, both their mental and physical recovery will suffer. Going from being physically active everyday to being unable to even walk is sure to mess with a person’s mind. Injured athletes were found to be more tense, depressed and confused than their non injured peers through two questionnaires-a Sportsmen's Feelings After Injury Questionnaire (SFAIQ), and a Bi-polar Profile of Mood States (POMS-BI).

There is also a level of fear that is acquired after an injury. This fear of re-injury can hold a player back from fully recovering or being able to perform at their best when recovered. The process of overcoming an injury is similar to a grieving process. For athletes, they grieve the lost time on the field, court, track, they grieve their loss of activity and the feeling of physically pushing themselves to the limit. It is only when you can no longer be a part of them that you miss the practices that made you want to quit. This loss can have a greater impact on the athlete than the physical impact of the injury itself.

It is no secret that mentally dealing with an injury is a difficult task. It requires a great level of inner strength that many injured athletes and non-athletes struggle finding. Finding the best way of coping with an injury is critical to recovery. If this stage is skipped, many patients will lack the confidence and determination to heal and get back to the game they love. Many individuals focus on their physical rehabilitation to keep them positive. Others seek psychiatric help which has been found to have positive effects in most cases. It is believed that patients will benefit best from problem-focused, behaviorally oriented programs, which would help them accept their situation and become proactive in finding ways of helping them feel normal again.

When a person is injured, they are forced to alter their normal way of life. Suddenly their whole daily routine must adapt to their situation. This is not something that most injured patients can do easily. It takes a level of determination and acceptance in order to figure out how to function around an injury. This has to do with the mental aspect of an injury. Yes, there is the physical aspect keeping you from doing your normal everyday activities, but it is a demanding task mentally to figure out how to adapt and not fall apart in the process. In fact most of the recovery process is dependent on your mental state. If a patient is unwilling to accept their injury, it will throw off their entire recovery. If they are unable to overcome their fear, they will unconsciously hold themselves back from doing the things they need to do in order to recover. And after they do recover, the fear of re-injury can hold them back from pushing themselves in a game or practice. This is why psychological rehabilitation is critical when it comes to injuries, especially in athletes.

The mental aspects of an injury are far more extensive than the physical aspects, especially in athletes. Athletes must go through the process of accepting their situation and adapting to it. They must go through physical and emotional pain and grieve the loss of time. They must deal with the most common feelings of frustration, anger and depression that go hand in hand with injuries. But most importantly, they must find a way to cope with all of these things, whether it be through their own strength, the love and support from family and friends, or through psychiatric help. If one is unable to cope with their injury, they will find it harder to fully recover. The psychological rehabilitation after an injury is just as important, if not more, than the physical rehabilitation. An injured athlete must be able to find the will and determination to get back to the sport they love in order to have a successful recovery. Without this determination, the patient will feel lost, depressed and stuck in their situation. Along with the research that has already been done on this subject, more on the best ways of coping with an injury, sports related or not, would help in giving patients the best chance at a successful physical and mental recovery. 

Grace LaDuefor Dr. G's Introduction to Psychology class

LHS graduate, 1977. Teach History and Psychology at LHS

Volume 13, Issue 24, Posted 3:19 PM, 12.19.2017