Written by Behavioural & Mental Health Counsellor – Nestor Rivera with Performance Triathlon Coach – Steve Davis
Injuries in sport are inevitable. The best you can hope for is to sleep, eat, recover, load correctly, strengthen and lengthen to help minimise the risk of an injury occurring.
We’ve all been there, sitting and listening to the physiotherapist explain what has happened to your body and what they recommend to help you recover and get back to full training as safely as possible. The majority of injuries are easily treated through some strength exercises and a couple of weeks rest or very low intensity exercise. But there are other types of injuries that are much harder to recover from, and sometimes require months of physiotherapy, demanding consistency and discipline from the athlete. Even though the literature and knowledge around the physical side of this is expansive, the mental side of injury is often underestimated. Leaving the mental side of sports untreated, especially during something as delicate as injury rehabilitation, can leave mental scars, and leave athletes feeling isolated, depressed and lost for direction.
A sports injury is defined as any change or condition of the body that interrupts normal movement, function or training that may require medical treatment. Research has shown that there is a direct relationship between the mental and emotional ability to cope with injury and the success and speed recovery. This means that the better your support network and relationship with your sport, the higher the chances you have to get back into your sport. The mental side of an injury is not only an important part of recovery, but it also sets the base of the way future injuries will be interpreted, the way social relationships are valued and even shapes the way a person behaves within themselves and around others.
To get firsthand information around the way athletes feel about being injured, a group of Triathletes from the Davey Black Triathlon club of all levels of experience and fitness were asked about their mental process around injury. The answers clearly showed that mental health was an area that, as debilitating as it is during injury, was often underestimated, and was accepted by most as a part of injury that had to be endured.
Some of the answers given were:
“Mental health effects of long term injuries are almost more debilitating than the physical injury itself.”
“No one talks to you about the mental health side of recovering from physical injuries.”
“Physical part of rehab is long and tiring, but the mental part of missing or slowing down on your sport was harder.”
“I would add social exclusion to the list of mental challenges. Part of the joy of group training is getting motivation and encouragement from everyone else.”
“Being injured must be treated the same way you think about holistic care, it’s all of you, and every aspect could be injured during the healing process of physiological injury.”
“There is a lot to learn as you adapt to the changes and you start to truly listen to your body. The hope and dream of returning to your sport of passion is the motivation that helps you see the light and keeps the rehab in progress.”
These responses not only show the importance of mental health during a physical rehabilitation process, but also show what keeps the athlete motivated.
Below are 6 steps you should consider as a coach or an athlete on a training plan if you are ever faced with an injury:
1. Recognise the injury
Athletes, regardless of their level, often have a high pain threshold. Endurance athletes learn to sustain a gruelling physical demand for hours without complaining. When injury comes, they usually ignore the pain until it is too late. Don’t just walk it off, stop when you feel discomfort or pain and take a moment to decide if continuing will make it worse.
Denial is part of the mental side of injury, and having it might be beneficial to sustain the pain, but can also make bad things worse by pushing a physical injury too far.
2. Identify the Physical and Emotional Pain
This step might need the help of professionals, but it is essential that you identify what is wrong and give it a name. This process becomes much easier when you know that you have a strain, a fracture or inflammation rather than just a random pain. The same happens with mental health. The road to recovery is easier if you know that you have symptoms of depression, anxiety or frustration instead of just not feeling well. This will give you a departure point towards your full rehabilitation.
It is usual to have feelings of anger or sadness around the injury. It can be something as mild as just being annoyed by it, to feel extremely angry over your diminished mobility. Through recognising the emotional symptoms, you will be able to understand what to do and what not to do.
3. Create a Rehab Training Plan
It is very important that you seek out professional help here. An Physiotherapist, Osteo or qualified Triathlon Coach will give you a triathlon training plan with SMART goals (Specific, Measured, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Based) based on your objective. The frustration and anxiety will significantly decrease if you have a pathway and a training plan to follow.
You will want to get back into action as soon as possible, and by working directly with a professional, you will know the extent at which you can re-activate your body and avoid exercises or activities that have the potential to aggravating your injury.
Adapting to the new rehab triathlon training plan will help you make the most of your situation. A qualified Coach will help you find alternative activities that will provide enough stimulus within the scope of your injury to keep you fit and strong. This will help you cope better with the whole recovery process.
4. Assess your mental health
Feelings of anxiety, frustration, and depression will likely arise from any injury. The best way to identify these feelings is through a reflective process, checking on yourself and checking on your feelings. Remember, it is ok not to be ok.
You need to realise that these feelings will manifest if you start thinking “I will never get back to my previous best” or “I will lose all my fitness.” These thoughts are red flags for you to realise that you need to protect your mental health. In the same way as you require a recovery plan from a physical injury, you will need a mental health plan to avoid falling victim of your own emotions.
Find someone who understands your situation.If you have a coach, then they must be your number one contact, otherwise, it could be a friend, a co-worker, or a mental health professional. Having someone who understands, but most importantly empathises with what you are going through, will give you the opportunity to vent your feelings and realise that you are not alone.
It is important to note that our mood in regards to the injury can vary from day to day. One day you might be accepting the situation around your injury, just to find yourself the following day filled with anger and low self esteem over the same injury. Don’t feel ashamed if you feel the need to communicate changing feelings many times to your coach. They need to know how you are feeling to best prepare and readjust your recovery plan to suit you.
6. Accept that the road is not perfect
Your recovery plan might be longer than expected, or you may relapse on your way to full recovery. Things don’t always go as planned, but that is ok.
Remember too that you will need to celebrate small victories; because even if it takes too long to recover from whatever is paining you, celebrating these victories will help you see the road done and the road ahead.
In the same way, you also need to accept that you will eventually get better and you will recover faster as long as you have faith in the process. Trust the training plan, trust your coach, trust your support network, and have faith in your own body.
In conclusion, it is important to mention that no matter how difficult some days can be, we can’t let our thoughts become an obstacle in our physical recovery.
As much as every athlete would love to overcome injury on their own, we must understand the importance of placing the recovery process in the hands of professionals. A qualified support team will provide you with the guidance you need to recover faster and more fully. Remember that you are not alone in your journey. By giving your body and mind the respect it deserves, you will get back on the track in no time.