Helping athletes cope with the psychological impact of a long term sports injury

Helping Athletes Cope with the Psychological Impact of a Long Term Injury

Long term injuries are an inevitable part of sport and the effects can be devastating for athletes. Athletes often experience a range of emotions when trying to cope with a long term injury, including isolation, anxiety, and low self-esteem. As an athletic trainer it can be difficult watching your athletes struggle with their injury but there are strategies you can put in place to help them through. In this post, we’ll look at how you can help athletes cope with the psychological impact of a long term injury.

The emotions of long term sports injuries

The impact of suffering a long term injury is more than just physical. Many athletes experience a range of emotions and this can severely impact their recovery. Being part of a team and training regularly is often at the core of an athlete’s identity and a long term injury takes that away from them.

Factors such as the type of injury, severity of the injury, time frame for recovery, ability to continue participating in training/practice, and pre-injury personality all affect the way an athlete copes with an injury.

As an athletic trainer and sports medicine professional, it’s important to recognize the psychological impact of a long term injury so you can help your athletes work through their emotions and focus on rehabilitation of their injury and getting back to full sports participation.

Some of the more common emotional impacts of long term sports injuries include:

  • Isolation – time off from training/practice and games, and being away from fellow athletes can make athletes feel isolated and alone. It is also common for injured athletes to feel envious of their fellow athletes for still being part of the team.
  • Guilt over time off – this is very common in athletes who are hard-working or the star of the team. Often these athletes feel relief at being forced off the field by injury but the flip side is they also feel guilty for ‘having time off’.
  • Anxiety and depression – given that an athlete’s identity and self-worth are often tied up with their abilities and on-field success, depression and anxiety are a common side effect of a long term injury. This can also affect an athlete’s ability to heal and recover, especially if they focus solely on what they can’t do rather than on what they can still do.

Strategies to help your athletes

As an ATC, your job is not just to take care of injuries but to help the athlete as a whole. We sometimes forget that in busy training rooms, but these athletes are more than just a “MCL injury” or other injury. There is a person attached to that injury that we are treating.

It is not uncommon for athletes to try and ‘hold in’ the emotions they are feeling and they will often feel they are the only person to feel this way. Thankfully, for both you and your athlete, there are strategies you can put in place to help your athlete recover physically and emotionally from their injury.

  • Help them express their feelings – this is an important part of the healing process. Help your athlete understand that it is perfectly normal for them to feel sad, guilty, relieved, depressed or anxious over a long term injury diagnosis. Suggest they start a journal or even speak to a counsellor to help them work through their emotions and understand what is driving them (e.g. are they depressed or anxious over the possibility of the injury being career ending, are they feeling isolated or that they are no longer part of the team etc.). Helping your athlete work through these feelings can help them move forward in the healing process and accept the reality of their situation.
  • Make them part of the recovery process – it is far too easy for athletes to take a backseat to the recovery process and this can be detrimental to their recovery. While you and other health and medical professionals will have the final say, it’s important to encourage your athlete to express how they’re feeling and if they feel their rehabilitation is working. Make appointments at times and venues to suit them (where possible), and include them in discussions with other professionals. When an athlete feels they are part of the process and that their feelings and opinions matter, they are more likely to stay engaged in the recovery process and this will have a positive effect on their healing and rehabilitation.
  • Find new roles for them – many sports teams understand how isolating a long term injury can be and are prepared to help athletes as they recover. Speak to the coaching staff or administrators on your athlete’s behalf and see if there is a role for them as they recover. Depending on the injury, injured players can help with hydration, time runs during practice, set up equipment, assist with supervising weight training sessions, even help on the bench on game day. The smallest job can help an athlete to feel they are still part of the team and keeps them connected to their fellow athletes.  This added role helps their recovery by lifting their spirits and helping them maintain a positive attitude.
  • Identify skills – quite often, the skills athletes develop (such as team work, hard work, determination, goal setting etc) can be transferred to other areas of life. Long term injuries can be the perfect time to help athletes discover other things they are good at. For example, some athletes may find they are good at managing certain aspects of the team, assisting with coaching, promotion or marketing. This is also a good time to help athletes think about the future and what they may like to do when their sporting career is over.

As an ATC, you are in a unique position to help your athletes on their road to recovery. By understanding the emotions associated with long term injury and their psychological impact, you can help your athletes recovery both physically and emotionally. By using the strategies above, you can work with your athletes to address their emotional concerns and help them maintain a positive outlook as they journey through the recovery process.