The Mental Impact of Injuries on Athletes

As teams prepare for postseason playoffs, athletes are increasingly pushing themselves both physically and mentally. Injuries are inevitable and the impact that they have on an athlete’s mental fitness is significant.  Last week one of my college athletes had surgery to repair her ACL (mid-season) and is facing the long road of recovery.  One of the most difficult injuries I’ve ever had to experience was watching my daughter fracture her tib/fib in a ski race and face multiple surgeries and hundreds of hours and months of rehab to get back on the mountain.

As coaches (and as parents), we need to recognize the significant impact that injuries have on our student-athletes.  We cannot underestimate how much injuries impact athletes both physically and more importantly, mentally.  As authors Carrie Jackson Cheadle and Cindy Kuzma say in their informative book about sports injuries called Rebound, “Injuries suck”

While broken bones and torn ligaments may heal with time, the psychological scar left by the setbacks, can linger long after the body is recovered.  Even when an athlete seems fine sitting out with an injury, they are not. Don’t believe the brave face.

Athletes that I work with tell me all the time that they no longer “feel valued” by their coach and teammates. One of my injured athletes recently said, “I don’t think my coach even sees me anymore” which can be devastating for anyone at any stage of life to feel; not to mention these formulative years of development.  It is so important that we, as coaches and as parents, support athletes during their recoveries.

Athletes are accustomed to pushing their bodies to the limit and being in control of their physical capabilities. When faced with an injury, athletes are forced to confront the reality that their bodies are vulnerable and sometimes beyond their control. This loss can be deeply unsettling and lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness.  Even after recovering from an injury, many athletes grapple with a persistent fear of re-injury. The fear of experiencing the pain and the setbacks all over again can weigh heavily on their minds, causing them to hold back during training and competition or second-guess their abilities.

Sometimes a good reminder to a hurt athlete is the benefit of learning to battle through the comeback.  As Nelson Mandela once said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Injuries often require athletes to withdraw from their teams and social circles while they focus on rehabilitation. This isolation can exasperate feelings of loneliness and alienation as athletes deal with the sense of being left behind. Without the camaraderie and support of their teammates, athletes can struggle to cope with their injuries and the mental toll they take.

For many high school athletes, sports represent more than just an after-school activity; for some, it feels like their identity.  It can be a source of pride, purpose, and self-worth. Consequently, being sidelined by an injury, can trigger a profound identity crisis, leaving athletes struggling to define themselves beyond their sport. Without the structure, routine and sense of belonging that sports provide, injured athletes may have feelings of loss, confusion, and angst. One cannot underestimate the toll that this can take on an athlete’s mental wellness.

In conclusion, the real impact of injuries on high school and college athletes goes far beyond the physical realm, encompassing a lot of emotional, psychological and social factors. As coaches, it is important to recognize the needs of injured athletes, providing them with support, empathy and resources to navigate the challenges of injury. It is important to understand what an athlete is going through so that we can help them overcome adversity, reclaim their sense of identity and purpose with a new determination.

“Injuries are like battles, they can be won if fought with the right mindset.” – Vince Lombardi

linda smiling<br />

Written by Linda Martindale

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