If you’re an athlete, enjoy being active, or need to be physically active for your job – injuries can be devastating. The physical effects, which are hard enough, are just the tip of the iceberg. It affects you emotionally and socially, in addition to disrupting the whole rhythm of your life. Let’s start with the emotional effects. Depression after a major injury is common. It’s really difficult to maintain a positive outlook when you’re injured. It inspires a lot of fear – “What if I get injured again?” “Will I ever get back to where I was?” “How will my body hold up once I try to start playing again?” “How will I provide for my family if I can’t work?” “I need to be active!” It can feel overwhelming and may seem like you’re never going to be the same, but things will shift – it just might not feel like it at the moment.
Getting injured also affects you socially – not feeling a part of the team, not spending as much time with your friends or work out buddies, and not getting to compete, which such a big part of what feeds athletes. Being injured changes the whole structure of your life (your routines). You have more free time now so you “should” be able to get more done, but you may find that you’re less productive overall, feel lost and less focused. If being active is part of your daily or weekly routine, it can feel disorienting to not have that structure. If you’re a competitive athlete, your identity may take a hit – “If I’m not a dominant runner, then who am I?” If you weren’t convinced when you started reading, you’re probably convinced now – injuries are really difficult to deal with on a lot of levels.
So what can you do? Here are five tools that can help…
- Stay connected to your team!
You aren’t around your teammates as much when you’re injured. You don’t practice or play with them. You may not get to travel with the team. This can lead to feeling left out or not a part of things anymore. Don’t give in to that feeling. YOU ARE STILL A PART OF THE TEAM! You’re role has just changed. You can exert influence in new ways – through your communication, leadership, analysis/strategy and just by continuing to be a positive presence. If you play an individual sport, there are likely still people that you would consider to be part of your team or community. Stay in the game by staying connected to them – your coach, the people you practice with and anyone you would consider to be part of your sports community. Go to team social events, mentor a younger player, find ways to offer your expertise and stay involved. Isolating yourself is tempting but likely to make things worse. Take the time to dive into learning parts of the game that you haven’t had time to learn. For example, use your increase in down time to learn all that you can about tactics or how great players overcame adversity. There are many stories of elite athletes choosing to be proactive while recovering from an injury – such as gaining a deeper tactical understanding of the game – and emerging from their recovery as an improved, more well rounded player.
- Find physical outlets that you can do!
It can be very easy (and totally natural) to focus on what you can’t do because of your injury. There is a time and a place for acknowledging the loss of what you can’t do (more on that in a minute). Focusing too much energy on this, however, can be unproductive. There are always things that you can do. For example, you really enjoy lifting weights but have a knee injury and cannot run or lift weights with your lower body. You can likely still work on your strength in other areas of your body – arms, core, hand strength. You can also do the exercises that your physical therapist gave to you. They may be tedious, but while your doing your PT exercises, picture what it will feel like to be back on the field and it may help give context and meaning to the repetitive exercises. A good physical therapist can help assess imbalances in your body and guide you to becoming stronger than you were before your injury. Now that’s something positive to focus on – coming back even stronger!
- Take the opportunity to discover some NEW activities
In addition to exercising different parts of your body (point 2), view this as an opportunity to discover something completely new that you haven’t tried. If you can’t do the hard cardio that you’re used to doing because you not allowed to run, try something slower like Tai Chi. If this sounds too slow or uninteresting, look into martial arts. If that’s too daunting, try swimming. If you’re thinking Tai Chi, Martial Arts and swimming all sound terrible or expensive or boring, no problem – the point is that there are so many ways to be active and often athletes get in the habit of only doing exercises that pertain to their sport (understandably). There can be profound benefits in integrating new ways of moving into your repertoire. For example, many athletes focus on strength and speed. While these are important, flexibility and fluidity are also very important. Being injured can be an opportunity to try activities that help you improve in these areas. And don’t just do what you think you should do. “Well I guess I’m supposed to just do yoga and meditate now.” That may be great for you, but if that doesn’t sound appealing then find something else! Find something you enjoy! Something that excites you and feels like a good challenge.
4. Let yourself grieve
It may sound funny to use the word grieve in this context, but it’s completely appropriate. There is a lot of sadness and loss for athletes when they sustain an injury. It’s important to take the time to recognize this. How do you do this, you might ask. Good question. It does not mean wallowing in self-pity. It also does not mean “sucking it up” and trying not feel any emotions about it. There’s an in between. It means taking the time to pay attention to what you’re feeling and not judging it or trying to push the feelings away. The most common feelings that you can expect to experience are sadness and anger. Those may or may be comfortable emotions for you to feel but allowing them be rather than trying to wish them away, will actually help you move on from them. “Allowing them to be” is easier said than done and looks differently for each person. It may mean taking some time alone to be outside, talking to a friend, or seeking the help of a therapist. There’s not one right way to do it. The point I want to make is that it’s OK to have feelings about your injury and that you can pay attention to those feelings AND still move forward in other proactive ways.
5. Find quality professional help – shop around!
Healing from an injury is a vulnerable process. You may have a lot of fear about what this means for your future in athletics or your future in general. Finding a doctor, physical therapist, or other practitioner that you trust, connect with, and feel confident in is really important. Shop Around. Many people get a recommendation and then just go with that person. Take control of your healing process by choosing the professional that works for you. Call several and ask them a few questions over the phone to get a better sense of them. Be open with them about it – its fine to have calls and/or initial sessions with several people before deciding who to continue on with. It shows a level of involvement and empowerment, and will likely help you an increased sense of agency and control in this process. Feeling a lack of control is a common reaction to getting injured. Taking charge of your recovery process can help. Once you find someone you trust, FOLLOW THEIR DIRECTIONS. Do the work to heal and get stronger. It’s probably tedious but it’ll help! And you want to come back stronger!
I am not trying to sugar coat how difficult injuries can be – both physically and emotionally. I am saying that there are proactive steps that you can take that help. Injuries can feel profoundly disempowering – “why did this happen to me?” These steps can help you start to take that power back and feel more in charge of the process. Find ways to stay connected with your team – they are one of your best support systems! Focus on the physical things that you CAN do. Find new outlets that you haven’t tried before and are excited to explore. Let yourself feel the sadness, anger and other emotions that injuries can elicit. And find professionals you trust to help you through this process.
Please feel free to let me know if you have questions or comments! If you’re familiar with the injury recovery process and have tried some of these tools, let me know how they worked!
Andrew Bednarzik, Sports Counselor and Owner of Riverbank Counseling in Asheville, NC