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Coping with Sports Injuries & Rehab – Reframing Attitudes & Goals Pays Dividends

by Lauren Johnson | Feb 18, 2014

Written by Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M., and Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP

Under the illumination of the Olympic torch, many human stories are emerging in Sochi - from some extraordinary athletes. The unfortunate reality of training, competing and pushing human limits is that injury is a potential result. Lindsay Vonn’s recent departure from the US Ski Team is just one example of the many difficult decisions athletes are facing regarding injuries throughout the Olympic Games.

Overcoming an injury is something most athletes will face at least once throughout a career. Here are a few brief ideas to assist any athlete who is managing the difficulty and uncertainty of injury recovery.

Beginning:

Much the same as an athlete cannot choose his or her opponent or win/loss record, an athlete cannot control the time, place or severity of an injury. One of the most important mental factors in effectively overcoming injury comes in the form of acceptance. It is natural to have an emotional reaction to injury, yet helplessness, anger, and denial are not emotions which will assist the individual to progress or adhere to a rehabilitation program. Once an athlete accepts the presence of an injury, he or she tends to become more recovery-focused and action-oriented (“How can I get better?”). Accepting something that may impede participation in an event for which one has trained for so many years is remarkably difficult. Yet, athletes who become more emotionally charged with embracing the challenge of recovery tend to adhere to medical advice and achieve better results in the end.

Middle:

Medical staff becomes the coach

Because many athletes are accustomed to being healthy and functioning at a high level, spending time with a medical team – which, to most athletes, is synonymous with dysfunction and poor health – may be uncomfortable. Rightfully so, athletes have a closer and more trusting relationship with their athletic team than with their medical team. A coach is meant to assist an athlete in reaching his or her goals, while a doctor or physical therapist is often indication that a barrier has arisen that might hinder achievement of those goals. However, effective injury recovery revolves around the close work of the athlete and their medical staff. Those who recognize and embrace their new team will build stronger relationships, gain deeper trust and likely to increase adherence to expert advice along the road to recovery.

Injury recovery becomes new sport

Much the same as the medical staff becomes a new coach, injury recovery becomes the new sport. As much as an athlete yearns to resume play, physical and mental investment into the rehabilitation process will prove to create better use of time and energy. Some days may be filled with stretching and strengthening, while others might include ice and repeated rest. An athlete who stays committed and active with their rehab process, the same as they would their sport training, will find greater purpose and feel more fulfilled along the path back to the playing field.

End:

Beware of “ticking clock”…deadlines become distractions

Having a specific date or game in mind to come back to the field may prove to be more of a distraction than a motivator throughout the recovery process, especially as that day approaches. Game time doesn’t make an athlete ready, recovery makes an athlete ready. Those who stay focused and committed to recovery will make a stronger and healthier return to the playing field, while those who allow certain games or dates to dictate their return might find themselves right back at the beginning of the injury recovery process.

How an athlete views an injury is ultimately the choice of the athlete. Observe the behaviors of the athletes at the highest level and you will see a reaction to injury not unlike the one described above. From the beginning to end stages of an injury, an athlete has complete control over his or her physical and emotional response. Olympic athletes understand and adhere to a more facilitative response, one that will quicken the recovery process and leave them fully ready to return to their sport.

About Matt Cuccaro, Ed.M.: Matt Cuccaro is the Director of Mental Training at Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island, SC. He has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is an active member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Matt has worked with athletes, coaches, and administrators in a number of sports from the junior to world-class professional level.

About Greg Chertok, Ed.M.: Greg Chertok is the Director of Mental Training at CourtSense, a high performance junior tennis academy in Bergen County, NJ. He has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is a certified consultant with the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Greg has worked with athletes from the junior to Olympic level.

Note: The views expressed in ACSM Olympics Hot Topics are those of the contributors only, and should not be construed as official statements of the American College of Sports Medicine. 

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