Self-loathing and denial won’t make an injury go away. If anything, psychological stressors can make recovery more difficult. That's why it's so important to stay positive after a sports injury. When I developed a repetitive stress injury called tarsal tunnel syndrome— similar to carpal tunnel, but on the inner side of my lower leg—I thought that I might never run a competitive long-distance race again.
Before my diagnosis, I shrugged my ankle pain off. I figured that running was supposed to hurt anyway. 'Rest' wasn't part of my vocabulary— I wasn't going to finish a half marathon by diving into multiple TV marathons. The more I tried to 'push through the pain', the more I risked permanent damage to my lower limbs. In a matter of weeks, even walking became painful. Routine 5 kilometre jogs were unbearable. I was trapped in a cycle of re-injury because I never gave enough credit to the non-physical aspects of injury rehabilitation and prevention. Once I learned how to treat the psychological pain associated with my stressed-out ankle, I emerged as a fully healed, informed, and deliberate runner.
Why rehab is more than just physical
Long-term fitness goals demand a certain level of commitment and focus. They’re a big investment of your energy: you make time to train come hell or high water, you balance your meals to the best of your abilities, and you treat foam rollers like clothing irons for muscle soreness. Your sport shapes your identity - you rely on personal records and even muscle ‘gains' as metrics of success.
When you incur an unexpected injury, you lose a major source of validation and self-fulfillment. Your physical strength dwindles, your muscles seem to shrink before your very eyes, and everybody speeds forward while you’re standing still (or more likely, sitting on the couch). Denial, frustration, and restlessness are normal feelings during the early stages of recovery. You may even experience these emotions simultaneously. Because you're feeling ALL the negative feelings, positive concepts like 'healing' and 'recovery' are difficult to wrap your head around.
Training your mind to stay positive after a sports injury
Give yourself time to acknowledge the negative aspects of your injury. Your struggles suck, and they're legitimate. Don’t internalize them. Find a way to vent your frustration, and move forward. Grumbling about pain won’t change the fact that you arein pain. Focus on what you can do to make the pain better. Positive self-talk reinforces recovery by easing the psychological trauma brought on by your injury. You’ll be less likely to take shortcuts on the road to recovery when you view rehabilitation with a positive mindset.
There's no use beating yourself up over goals you can no longer achieve. Your favorite running trail isn't going to vanish and there will be competitions and tournaments in the future. Scale down your expectations. Think in steps, not sprints. A long-term mindset will help you to cope with denial and prevent you from rushing back into training too hard, too soon. Stay positive after a sports injury by looking at the bigger picture: why fuss over a few months of rest when you have a whole lifetime of training ahead of you?
This doesn’t mean that you should stop exercising altogether. Talk to your physician about low-impact exercises that are safe for you. Use rehabilitation time to fine-tune skills that build on the foundations of your training. Specific and realistic goals can help you to sharpen oft-ignored dimensions of fitness, such as your overall flexibility, mobility, and core stability. Try holding your plank for just 10 more seconds each week, or attempt to brush your teeth while balancing on one leg - without falling.
Think in the present tense
Some people tend to experience elevated re-injury concerns when they're given the green light to resume training. A few studies suggest that re-injury anxieties can impair athletes’ concentration levels and heighten hesitation on the playing field. Dwelling on the past may hinder your athletic performance and even increase the likelihood that you'll hurt yourself again. The more you stress out about your injury, the harder it’ll be to pick up where you left off.
Think about your situation in the present tense. Shift your attention away from what you could have avoided and what you should have done to prevent the injury. Instead, assess what you can do to get healthy now. This will help you to feel like you have more control over the situation. According to Sports Medicine Expert Elizabeth Quinn, you should learn as much as you can about your diagnosis, get clear expectations about the purpose and timeline of your rehabilitation program, and ask about what you should do if your injury worsens.
It isn't easy to stay positive after a sports injury. It may feel as though you’re walking in the wrong direction of an escalator. With plenty of patience and a few actionable coping strategies, you’ll be able to go from zero to 100 in seemingly no time at all.
About the Author
Alessandra Hechanova is a highly caffeinated long-distance runner with a penchant for puns. She is the Community Manager for PumpUp, an inspiring mobile health and fitness community. When she isn’t toying with typography or serving up a smoothie, she’s struggling to achieve the elusive pull-up.