Psychology of Injury: Part 2
Psychology of Injury Part 2
Posted by: Mason Blake l University of Denver Center for Performance Excellence Consultant
In Part 1, we explored some of the mental consequences inflicted by injury. Athletic identity, motivation and adherence to rehabilitation, and lack of confidence are all part of the less mentioned side of injury. These factors all represent barriers to an effective rehabilitation and are often disregarded, neglected or poorly treated. Because of this, it is important the support network of injured players understand the mental effects of injury and are prepared to help the injured player. This begs the question of what you can do to support and guide injured soccer players through the mental challenges of injury?
For players deeply connected with their identity as a soccer player, injury can create a laundry list of negative mental effects. A player’s value identification may not be fully formed with more life experience than just their soccer life. Defining personal values means determining core personality traits that inform who you are as a person and specifically, how you want to be. When your behavior is guided by these values, life tends to become more meaningful and fulfilling. By recognizing what is important in their life, injured players are able to identify themselves as more than just a soccer player and learn supplementary activities that allow them to satisfy these values leading to a more meaningful life away from soccer.
Value identification can also be used to address a lack of motivation or adherence during injury rehabilitation. Reduced motivation and adherence are often connected to an aversion to undesirable thoughts, feelings, and sensations (e.g. pain). Time should be taken to identify a player’s personal values but also performance values (i.e., how they want to be as a player, how they want to be perceived by others) should also be explored.
Through establishing performance values, a conversation concerning emotion-driven and values-driven behavior should be had. Emotion-driven behavior is chosen to alleviate short-term discomfort (e.g., not completing rehabilitation exercises to avoid pain in the injured area), however, these actions hinder any long-term benefits. (e.g., injured area is not strengthened). Values-driven behavior instead requires players to experience short-term discomfort in accordance with their performance values (e.g., committed) in order to move towards long-term benefits.
Players must be willing to accept the uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, and sensations during rehabilitation and choose behaviors that align with their values. When an injured athlete is struggling to find a purpose in the absence of soccer or to stay motivated during physical rehabilitation, ask them these two questions.
What kind of person do you want to be?
What kind of soccer player do you want to be?
Being able to focus on the right thing at the right time is an essential skill. Our mind has a tendency to wander, often replaying old memories (e.g., how the injury happened) or worrying about what the future may hold (e.g. will I be able to get back to my best?). When our attention is not anchored in the present moment, we are unable to achieve our full potential. During rehabilitation, different internal and external aspects of the environment fluctuate in their importance. At times it may be important to focus on pain to use it as information, while at others it may be more salient to focus on the feedback being provided by your athletic trainer.
It is imperative to provide injured players with tools to self-regulate their attention and focus on what is most important. Mindfulness training, or focus training, is one way to build these skills. When practiced deliberately and consistently, mindfulness can help refocus attention on the task at hand providing full engagement. In the context of rehabilitation, mindfulness skills can help an injured player notice where their mind is (e.g. worries about returning to soccer) and gently bring it back to whatever is most important at that moment (e.g. mechanics of rehabilitation exercise).
Mindfulness can also be used to address low levels of confidence during rehabilitation. Typically self-confidence is diminished by undesirable thoughts and feelings (e.g. fear, self-doubts, worrying etc.). It is important to note that experiencing these types of thoughts and feeling is completely normal as a human-being when the outcome of the task is of high personal importance. We have been conditioned to believe that having these thoughts is bad and we must get rid of these thoughts to have any chance of being confident or performing a task well. This is not the case. Trying to control these types of thoughts and feelings has been shown to actually make them worse and exacerbate performance issues.
Instead of trying to change our thoughts and feelings, we need to change our relationship with them. Through the use of mindfulness skills and techniques, players can train to become aware of when fear, worry, or self-doubt arise in the mind. Instead of getting caught up or hooked in by them, players can respond to these with tolerance and acceptance. Simply put, injured players don’t need to feel confident in achieving their goals. By learning how to make room for undesirable thoughts and feelings, players can allow them to pass through their consciousness freely without a struggle, freeing them up to be the person and player they want to be. Genuine confidence is not the absence of fear, worry, or self-doubt but the process of transforming your relationship with these negative thoughts and feelings. Mental skills are just like any other technical, tactical or physical skills. They take time, practice and dedication to cultivate. By practicing some of the skills detailed above, injured soccer players can begin to address some of the mental barriers inherent in rehabilitation.