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Basketball player in a cast with a broken arm

Managing the Emotional Effects of Sports Injuries

By Michael Mosciano, MA, ATC, LAT

Injuries are common in sports. For the recreational athlete, an injury can simply be annoying, but for the competitive or professional athlete, it can have a significant impact on their training and competition. Injuries can halt an athlete’s preparation or remove them from competition completely. While some athletes are able to take an injury in stride, others may have a difficult time emotionally dealing with it. An injured athlete may experience a loss of identity that can have a negative effect on their life.

Faced with a disruption in normal daily activities, it’s understandable that an athlete would experience a range of emotional responses to being injured. The Kübler-Ross model, or 5 stages of grief and loss, has been used to describe some of the feelings an athlete may experience when dealing with injury and recovery. While not every athlete will go through each stage in this exact order, it can be helpful to understand what an athlete may be going through emotionally during the process.

The first stage is denial, where an athlete will try to downplay the significance of an injury and refuse help from coaches or medical staff, telling teammates they are fine. In the second phase, this denial may be replaced with anger that they are injured. The anger may be directed at themselves or by placing blame on those around them.

Following anger, the athlete may use bargaining to try to avoid accepting they are injured. They may ask to try a specific activity or workout in an attempt to prove they are okay. Eventually, when confronted by the reality of the injury, the athlete may become depressed at the uncertainty they face during treatment and recovery.

Finally, the athlete comes to accept the injury. This is not a shift to being happy about it, but it will allow them to begin to focus on rehabilitation.

The skills that athletes learn in training can be helpful during recovery. A good understanding of the injury and treatment plan is important and will help give the athlete a sense of power. Having the athlete participate in establishing goals for their rehabilitation can give them a sense of ownership and responsibility that can help prevent feelings of isolation during the process.

An injured athlete should be encouraged to identify and deal with the stress related to the injury and to channel this energy into the work of rehabilitation, with an understanding that, despite possible setbacks, it is important to keep focused on the end goal.

While being away from their sport, an athlete has plenty of time to develop fear and anxiety about their return. Focusing on proper form and execution of rehabilitation activities can help overcome self-defeating thoughts. Managing pain is also key to trusting the process. Understanding the difference between the pain of recovery and the pain of injury, will allow them to adjust their rehabilitation accordingly.

While no athlete ever looks forward to an injury, the effort required to return after an injury can give an athlete new perspective. Athletes who are able to maintain a positive attitude through recovery often gain a new appreciation for the value of sports in their lives that can help elevate their performance to new levels.

About CHKD Sports Medicine

About CHKD Sports Medicine  CHKD's sports medicine program offers the most comprehensive care for your young athlete. From diagnosis and treatment to customized rehabilitation plans, we specialize in physical therapy and injury prevention programs for active children and teens. Our team is composed of pediatric orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists, physician assistants, certified athletic trainers and pediatric sports medicine physical therapists.