Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Sport and Competition

Psychological Rehab After Sports Injury

The mind matters for a complete and timely recovery from sports injury.

Jake Barnes
Source: Jake Barnes

Every day when you read the sports page of a newspaper or online, you hear about injury after injury after injury. Whether the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, NCAA, professional soccer, tennis, and golf, or down to the high school ranks, men and women athletes all over the world are seeing their seasons (and sometimes their careers) ending with a serious injury.

Given the steady flow of injuries that occur to athletes, I thought it timely to return to a topic that is near and dear to me, namely, the role of the mind in responding to an injury and its impact on a quality rehabilitation and a timely and effective return to sport.

Though I don’t know the statistics on knee injuries in sports, I’m going to figure that a substantial portion of athletes sustain a serious injury at some point in their careers. Also, as the author of two books on the psychology of injury, I regularly work with athletes of all sorts helping them recover and return to their sport better than ever. Finally, having avoided serious injury during my own career as an internationally ranked ski racer (just a partially torn ACL and two broken wrists), I tore up and had surgery on my shoulder a few years ago while working with a group of ski racers in Chile and finally learned first hand how difficult recovering from a serious injury is.

The sad reality of sports is that many young athletes either have so far or will this year hurt themselves so seriously that it will end their seasons. The good news is that surgical and rehabilitative technology has become so advanced that a full physical recovery from an injury that a few decades ago might have been career-ending is now commonplace.

But another reality of physical injuries is that the mind gets damaged too, but little attention is paid to how the absence of “mental rehab” can prevent athletes from returning to or improving on their pre-injury level of performance. As a result, I thought I would share some ideas I have about how injured athletes can ensure that their minds recover as fully as do their bodies.

Keep Perspective

Accept that getting hurt sucks and you will feel bad at times, especially early in your recovery when you’re more disabled than recovering. You will not be able to do the normal things to which you are accustomed. You will be in pain. You’ll feel frustrated, angry, and depressed. You’ll want to curl up in a ball and withdraw from life. These reactions are normal and, to some degree, healthy, as you have to allow yourself to grieve for your loss.

At the same time, if you allow yourself to stay in that funk for too long, you will surely slow your recovery. So, after a short time, get over your “pity party” and get your mind on your recovery; keep focused on the present ("What can I do now to get healthy?") and the future ("I will heal and get back better than ever!").

Another part of keeping perspective is that your injury seems like a big deal now, but, when you look back on it in a few years, it will probably be just a blip in your sports career and life. I’m working with a European athlete who missed two years with a back injury, but he never gave up his dream and is now healthier and better than ever.

Stick with Your Rehab Program

A simple reality I learned in recovering from my shoulder injury was that if you follow your rehab program, you will get better (and if you don’t you won’t). The problem is that rehab hurts (a lot!), is boring, tiring, monotonous, in other words, it gets old fast. That’s why so many injured athletes end up either shortening or skipping rehab sessions, or not putting in their best effort. The result: slowed or incomplete recovery.

There is also a subset of injured athletes who have the belief that more is better, so they do more sets and reps on more days than recommended by their rehab team. Unfortunately, this “more is better” mentality often results in overuse injuries and other complications, and a slowed rather than accelerated recovery. My recommendation here is very straightforward: Do exactly what your rehab people tell you to do, no more and no less.

Become a Better Athlete

I have seen careers saved by serious injuries. How’s that possible, you might ask. Getting injured can teach you to be tough, endure hardship, and really find your motivation for sports. Injuries can also enable you to focus on areas of our sport that have been weaknesses, but you simply haven’t had time to work on them. Yes, a knee injury, for example, can prevent you from doing a lot. But it’s also an opportunity to figure out ways you can improve as an athlete working around your knee, for instance, strengthen your core and upper body, improve your flexibility, and increase your stamina. The goal is for you to return to your sport a physically better athlete than you were before.

Redirect Your Energies

One of the most difficult aspects of an injury is that you can’t do what you normally do and are often at a loss how to expend the energy that builds up in you every day. Another downside is that you have lost something that has been a source of self-esteem, validation, meaning, satisfaction, and joy in your life.

Your best path is to find something toward which you can direct your energy and that will provide you with what sports used to for you. It can be anything, for example, learning a musical instrument, cooking, reading, school, whatever. The important thing is to find something you can care about and throw yourself into it just the way you threw yourself into your sport. Not only will it bolster how you feel about yourself, but it will also take your mind off of the disappointment of your injury and the difficulty of the recovery.

Stay Involved in Your Sport

The chances are that much of your life revolves around sports and being injured can cause you to feel isolated and at a distance from the sport you love. This separation from sports can also hurt your motivation because you aren’t experiencing many of the good things that you get from sports; the excitement, inspiration, fun, and camaraderie of your teammates.

So, look for ways to stay connected with your sport. For example, become an apprentice coach (this will help you learn more about technique) or help out at practices and competitions. Do your physical conditioning (around your injury) during regular team fitness sessions. I realize that this might be difficult because you may be “jonesing” to be out there and you may not like seeing your teammates or competitors moving ahead of you. At the same time, both the connection and seeing others having fun and getting results will further motivate you to rehab and get back on the field, court, course.

Watch Video and Sports on TV

Imagine if, while sidelined with an injury, you just sat on the sofa all day. Obviously, your muscles would atrophy, you’d get really out of shape, and you wouldn’t be ready to return to your sport when your injury healed. The same applies to your mind. If you don’t keep it sharp, it too will get soft and out of shape.

One way to keep your mind in shape is to watch video of yourself and televised competitions of your heroes. You can use video and TV to "rehab" your mind and keep it focused and “in the game” during your recovery. Watch video of yourself three time a week for 10 minutes to keep a clear image of how you perform in your sport. Watch televised competitions of your sport and videos of your favorite athletes. You will learn about technique and feel inspired watching them (while recognizing that many of these athletes you are watching have returned from serious injuries as well).

Develop a Mental Imagery Program

There is nothing more important to your mental recovery than mental imagery. Imagery is not just something that goes on in your head. In fact, it connects your mind and your body and, amazingly, activates muscles in the same way as when you are actually performing in your sport (though not with the same intensity). Mental imagery, in a way, fools your body into thinking that you are really performing in your sport.

Imagery has huge benefits to recovery from injury. Research has shown that you can improve your skills without actual training by engaging in regular mental imagery. So, by doing imagery regularly, you can maintain or maybe even better your sports skills. Seeing and feeling yourself continuing to practice and compete (in your mind’s eye) will keep your motivation up (because you’ll be inspired to get back to your sport), your confidence high (because you’ll regularly see and feel yourself performing well), and your mind focused (because you’ll be exercising your mental muscles and, as a result, they will stay in shape for your return to sport). Importantly, imagery will make you feel like you're still progressing as a athlete.

Bottom Line

When you get seriously injured, it is a real bummer. But what is an even bigger bummer is not returning fully or as quickly as possible to your sport. For you to return to sport as good or better than you were before your injury, you need to do everything possible to facilitate your recovery. That means, of course, following your physical rehab program to the letter. But it also means developing and following a mental rehab program as well, so that your body and your mind are fully recovered and prepared for the rigors of sports from the very first time to return to practice.

More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Jim Taylor Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today