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Tips for Coping with an Injury in Sports

I love a good sports comeback story. I grew up admiring athletes who had beat the odds or suffered seemingly career ending injuries only to return to their sport stronger and more determined. Though I enjoyed watching these athletes, I was terrified of suffering an injury that would sideline me for an extended period of time.

My fear came true during my sophomore year of college when I tore my ACL, MCL and meniscus during a soccer game. I had known many athletes who suffered similar injures then returned fairly easily and I felt prepared to tackle the surgery and subsequent recovery. I soon realized I was only prepared for the physical aspect of recovery and for every hour of physical work I put in, there were countless hours of mental and emotional work as well.

It’s not uncommon to feel feelings of isolation, frustration, and anxiety after suffering an injury and these feelings can often be confusing to young athletes who are already dealing with the physical pain that accompanies a sports injury. Missing out on practices and games can affect an athletes emotional and social well-being and I've worked with many that have felt that they lost their sense of self or their identity. Many athletes also experience feelings of self-doubt or decreased confidence following an injury. Through my own experience with injury and by working with many injured athletes, I've learned some helpful tips on how to deal with the mental portion of recovery.

Here are some strategies with how to cope following an injury:

1. Recognize and honor your feelings. After I injured my knee, I was mad. Actually, I was furious. I soon recognized that it’s natural to feel disappointed or angry that you aren’t able to compete in your sport after an injury and it’s normal to feel sad or upset that you aren’t at practice or games with your teammates. When you’re injured, you lose your sport for some amount of time and it can be helpful to look at that for what is; a loss. Dealing with the loss of your sport by allowing yourself to feel whatever feelings may come up can be the first step in managing and working through them.

2. Stay in the present. Athletes often want to get back into their sport after an injury and be better right now; but the truth is injuries often take time to heal. Focusing on the here and now, instead of the future, can help you remain calm and concentrated on your physical recovery instead of rushing through rehab and potentially risking re-injury. Staying in the present moment can be challenging, but incorporating mindfulness or meditation into your day can be helpful (more on these two techniques in future posts).

3. Find something else that interests you. Often times, the sport that an athlete loses is their entire life. Their identity is tied to the sport and they define themselves an athlete, but when they are injured, that identity is often lost as well. Being injured often means that there is less time dedicated to practice and competition which may mean more time for other activities . It can be a great time to find another hobby to participate in and discover other areas that interest you. After my knee injury, I had more time available to me and joined the Big Brother Big Sister Organization where I discovered I loved helping others. I soon changed my major to psychology which led me to where I am today!

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. One thing I wish I knew when I was growing up and watching all those professional athletes who returned to sports after being injured is that they didn’t do it alone. Dealing with an injury is difficult for any athlete regardless of what level they are at and many elite athletes seek help from a counselor or sport psychologist to help them through the recovery process. Seeking help is a normal part of recovering from an injury!

Injuries can be painful, both physically and emotionally. It's normal to struggle with negative feelings after suffering a sports injury but learning how to cope with the mental part of recovery can help you come back even stronger.

Check out my class “Coping with Injuries in High School” to learn more about how to deal with the psychological aspect of an injury.

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