At some time or another, an athlete is going to pick up an injury.
It may be one of many sorts – an exercise-induced injury, inactivity or a crash.
The physical impact of an injury can typically be managed with support from medical specialists, careful riding and a phased reintroduction to proper training. However, it is often the mental impact that is least understood and consequently neglected. To fully recover and move forward it is wise to understand the psychology of injuries both before and after they occur. In this article, Sports Psychologist Dr. Andrew Lewis offers insights into the psychology of an injury with some pointers on navigating through them.
When an injury occurs, there is both the physical and mental side of dealing with it that can be quite complicated. Medical specialists are typically there for the physical side, but it is often the mental and emotional side that is complicated and ignored, knowingly or unknowingly. There are several possible reasons for this. Often when we are stressed and anxious; overly fatigued or even distracted, an injury can occur. Tight muscles caused by stress and anxiety make it that much easier for injuries to occur as we are less responsive and our bodies are more rigid. Anxiety can also be a response to an injury in that we feel that our recovery is not fast enough or our financial obligations are not being met.
In reality, we are more than just cyclists – we have relationships with our significant others and have lives outside of cycling. Distractions triggered by these relationships and life, in general, may cause additional stress and anxiety, which can lead to a crash or injury. Injuries bring on numerous negative emotions: anger, sadness, disbelief, denial, anxiety and even a depressed mood. It is the build-up of these unfulfilled goals, disappointment, frustration at getting injured, not recovering fast enough, a sense of being let down and letting others down, that can all play negatively into our mental side. Given this, the question is then how do we manage the fear of getting injured and our mental state when an injury does happen?
So what should you do?
Manage your anxiety and stress. Focusing too much on the outcome of a race and being distracted can all create a sense of stress and anxiety. Also, the anxiety and stress that comes with injuries can cause emotional turmoil and even exacerbate or prolong the injury. Understand, manage and embrace your anxiety and stress!
Recognize when you are tired, exhausted and when fatigue sets in. Sleep deprivation and overtraining can lead to exhaustion and even burnout which may lead to illness and injuries. Be aware of low energy levels which may cause differences in your mood such as irritability, feeling down, anger, difficulty being motivated to train; and anything else that is out of the norm such as differences in sleep patterns.
Maintain a sharp focus. Being overly relaxed and complacent during practice and competitions can result in one slip and then boom – an injury. Develop mental strategies to concentrate and bring yourself back to full focus if you find your mind wandering off. I like to use the metaphor of a traffic light with its three different colour functions to visualize this process of regaining your focus. When you become aware of yourself being preoccupied, visualize the red colour of the traffic light to stop this distraction. Using the orange colour, engage your mind into thinking about a strategy to restore your focus. The green colour of the traffic light indicates using the selected strategy in getting back to the here-and-the-now of being fully focused.
If injured, shift focus to some smaller goals. Often when injured, the long-term goals that we set before the injury can create a huge amount of negative emotions (e.g. feeling demotivated, anxiety in not reaching your goals). Trying to achieve these initial pre-injury long-term goals feels like an uphill battle as these initial goals may suddenly feel impossible to achieve. This may necessitate you taking bite-size, realistic chunks or even re-setting your goals to accommodate the injury.
Liaise with your medical team. The medical experts can provide you with objective and realistic facts as to your injury and its prognosis. Part of having an injury is to educate yourself about the injury and about the required recovery process. This will help you get through things a little easier and go a long way to prevent a re-injury. After all, prevention is better than cure.
Build and maintain your support team. Family and friends provide safe emotional support and even call us out if we find ourselves overextending ourselves during recovery. Cherish them!
Do other activities that you enjoy. Being injured does not mean that we cannot do other activities that keep us active. Speak to your medical team and get their perspective on what other activities are safe for you to do during this time of injury. This also allows you to take a rest from your normal bike training and competition regime and explore other fun activities that can maintain your fitness, conditioning and mental levels.
Stay involved with the team. It doesn’t mean to say that you have an injury that you have to isolate yourself from the team and not be involved in team matters. Maintain contact with your teammates and even become involved in other activities within the team (e.g. being part of the support team handing out refreshments during a competition) that you didn’t get around to doing prior to the injury. It will mean a lot to you and the team!
Hone your mental skills. Down-time can mean the further development of your mental skill-set. Turn the setback into a comeback! Focus on developing positive self-talk; and even use mental imagery to hasten the recovery process by reliving in your mind some of your previous successful races and achievements. Also, using mental skills (such as visualization and reflection) in remembering how you approached a challenge and overcame it helps you further down the road in approaching similar challenges.
In conclusion, injuries aren’t pleasant…in fact, they suck! However, learning how to manage them goes a long way in making us mentally prepared and stronger. Learning to embrace your injury allows you to explore and learn more about yourself and injury management.
About Dr Andrew Lewis
Andrew Lewis is a Health Professions Council of South Africa (SA) and Health and Care Professions Council (UK) registered Educational Psychologist with rooms in Stellenbosch and Somerset West. With a post-graduate qualification in Sport Psychology, he works with individual athletes and teams who compete at all levels―national and international; and those who compete for pleasure. Andrew also collaborates with institutions and schools and publishes Sport Psychology- and Educational Psychology-related articles in peer-reviewed academic journals, newspapers and popular magazines. He also presents Sport Psychology workshops to other health professionals and athletes; as well as scientific papers at international and national conferences. Andrew also has an extensive sporting background and understands the demands and pressures of competitive sport―himself competing in the Ironman triathlon. Andrew is currently a senior-lecturer at the University of the Western Cape and was also a senior-lecturer at Stellenbosch University and the University of South Africa for 19 years where he trained Educational Psychologists and teachers; lectured students and conducted research. He also taught at two primary schools for 5 years.