Injured? Here's Your Secret Weapon

There are 2 types of athletes: ones who are injured and ones who aren’t injured...yet.

It's a tough pill to swallow, but you athletes will get injured. Sometimes it's because you're not paying attention to your body, whereas other times it's a complete fluke accident. Regardless of how the injury happens, it sucks. I've never met an athlete that likes being injured. In fact, most of the injured athletes I work with are eager to get back to playing (sometimes too eager) and don't know what to do with themselves when under activity restrictions. 

One of the biggest challenges for you as a injured athlete is that you're removed from your sport. When your schedule is typically filled with sport-related activities (practice, lifting, etc.) one of the biggest post-injury challenges is knowing what to do with your time. Sure you'll be doing rehab, but there's a limit to that because your body has to rest and recover. So what in the world do you do with yourself? Want to know my recommendation? Practice mental skills!

My guess is you've already heard that using mental skills during rehab is a good idea. Yet, so few athletes use them when they are injured. For example, a recent study by Arvinen-Barrow and colleagues found only 27% of their sample of 1283 athletes from the United States, UK, and Finland used mental skills during rehab! This stat is even more surprising given the evidence to suggest using mental skills during rehab is helpful. We don't have a lot of good information as to why more athletes aren't using mental skills during rehab. One possible reason may be athletes just don't think about it. Another reason is athletes not being exactly sure HOW they will help during the rehab process. Regardless of the reason(s), I want to use this as an opportunity to help YOU understand how they are helpful during injury rehab.

In this post, I articulate 3 reasons mental skills can be your "secret weapon" during injury recovery. Why are mental skills your secret weapon? Well, if over 70% of injured athletes AREN'T using them, and you know they work, it's a way to use injury rehab as a time to become better. And if you know how to use them during injury rehab, using them when you are not injured will be that much easier because they are  already a part of your routine (I'll address the benefits of mental skills on sport performance in another post). 

I'm keeping it broad when I refer to "mental skills" in this post for brevity purposes. Don't worry, I'll address each of the mental skills during injury recovery in the future. Stay tuned! This post is also not meant to be an exhaustive review, but I hope to give you enough information to help you understand why you need to use mental skills during injury rehab. Here we go!

Rehabilitation Adherence

It can be difficult to adhere to rehab exercises. They're boring, repetitive, and painful (sorry, ATCs and PTs, but you know it's true!). Part of what keeps us going in practice is knowing we will let our teammates or coaches down if we don't do what we are asked to do (and sometimes that's putting it mildly...). Although this is also the case for rehab, our teammates and coaches are often not present when we are doing our rehab, so it can be difficult to stay on top of it (and you may or may not slack a bit...).

Mental skills have been found to help athletes adhere to rehab regimens (Arvinen-Barrow, Penny, Hemmings, & Corr, 2010Evans & Hardy, 2002; Hamson-Utley & Vazquez, 2008; Penpraze & Mutrie, 1999; Scherzer et al., 2001), particularly as it pertains to goal-setting. Setting goals gives us a good template to follow and can serve as our "practice plan" for rehab. What do athletes like? Pursuing goals. So set up some goals for rehab. Boom!

Facilitate Injury Recovery

What do you want when you are injured? To get back to your sport as fast as possible. Many athletes believe that it's hammering away at the physical aspect of recovery that gets us back quicker. Yet, there's evidence to suggest that adding mental skills to the mix can be another tool to enhance physical recovery.

Studies found that athletes using mental skills, such as positive self-talk, mental imagery, and goal setting, during injury rehabilitation recovered more quickly than those who did not use those skills (DePalma & DePalma, 1989Ievleva & Orlick, 1991). Other studies found mental skills reduced the amount of time athletes were away from their sport due to injury (Ross & Berger, 1996). What's even more cool is that these are some of the mental skills used to enhance sport performance when we're NOT injured. So you get to be a pro at using them by the time you return to play.

Reduced Symptoms

Injuries bring up a wide range of emotions for athletes, including sadness and anxiety. Injuries are also associated with increased physical pain. Athletes often use their sport as a coping skill (I know I've worked through some strong emotions throughout my sport career). Therefore, not being allowed to participate in sport can also be even more challenging because you're not able to utilize a major coping skill because you're recovering. 

Mental skills training has been found to reduce anxiety, including re-injury anxiety, (Cupal & Brewer, 2001; Ross & Berger, 1996) and pain (Ross & Berger, 1996), and increase confidence (Walsh, 2005) during rehabilitation. Psychological skills are also associated with decreased mood disturbance and fewer negative emotions (Mankad & Gordon, 2010; Rock & Jones, 2002) throughout the rehab process. Other studies found that mental skills helped athletes cope more effectively with symptoms that were present (Hamson-Utley & Vazques, 2008; Monsma, Mensch, & Farroll, 2009). So not only can it help us cope with the range of emotions during the injury process, it may even help reduce difficult emotions. 

So, there you have it: 3 reasons you need to use mental skills when injured. There are many mental skills to use (e.g., goal-setting, imagery, self-talk) and various ways to learn them, including individual and group training. These can be taught in a laid-back or structured format (e.g., stress inoculation training). And if you're really adventurous, you can make it all into a game like Cosmin Mihaiu suggests!

Dr. Erin Haugen is a licensed clinical psychologist and sport/performance psychologist located in Grand Forks, ND. She specializes in helping college student-athletes excel in sports and in life. She is a former basketball player, current triathlete, and loves dogs.


Disclaimer: You should consult an appropriate professional for specific advice tailored to your situation. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency, you should call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.