Other than missing a last second buzzer beating, putting a penalty kick over the crossbar, or finishing 1/100th of a second outside the medals, injury is every athlete’s worst nightmare. The years of practice, the sweat, the early mornings and late nights – all of it’s now for nothing. Or at least that’s how it seems when you pull that hamstring, tear that ligament, or sprain that ankle. It’s very easy for the initial shock (What? No!) to transition into despondency (Poor me), which in turn leads to self-defeating pessimism (I’m never going to be the same again). It’s easy to reduce injury rehab to a purely physical thing, but in reality, the biggest battles a player faces after they get hurt don’t take place on the treatment table, but in their own head.
In the course of this three-part series, we’re going to explore several stages of the continuum between getting injured and returning to play. During this first installment, we’ll look at how to get your mind right before you have surgery (or, if your injury doesn’t require this, in the acute phase right after getting hurt). Part two will concentrate on the mental aspect of recovering from such a procedure. And we’ll land the plane by exploring the mental skills needed to not only get back on the field, but thrive upon your return to competition.
Will You Use Your Injury, or Let it Use You?
In Bridging the Gap, Sue Falsone, the first female head trainer in Major League sports (who I had the pleasure of meeting with through our mutual connection with EXOS) writes, “There are few things more daunting than helping a professional athlete go from injury through rehabilitation to performance.” I couldn’t agree more. Sue’s book details the physical steps needed to guide athletes through the continuum of care, and I believe nailing the mental milestones is just as important.
Let’s start at the beginning: you just got injured, and it sucks. However, while I won’t deny you that initial twinge of disappointment, try to minimize the sadness that follows, or present some Pollyanna-like platitude such as “Just stay positive.” I will say that in this moment of feeling helpless, you can choose to re-gain some control of the situation. Of course, you cannot simply wave a magic wand and be miraculously healed or get yourself back out there with your teammates immediately through sheer force of will – though it would be nice, right? But you CAN decide whether you’re going to use your injury, or let it use you.
Tough times come to us all – whether in the form of family problems, money worries, or health concerns. Injury is no different. It’s an obstacle that is frustrating, painful, and sometimes overwhelming. Yet no matter how bad you’re hurting right now, you can choose to have a good attitude as you begin fighting back to full function. When faced with any obstacle, we stand at a crossroads. One way leads us along the pessimistic path of feeling like we’re merely a victim of circumstance. The other takes us on a journey that, while winding through disappointments and setbacks, allows you to become the creator of your own best life. In this very moment, which will you choose?
After getting injured, many athletes start to feel that their situation is hopeless, particularly when facing an Achilles tear, ruptured knee tendons, or another injury necessitating a long layoff. What they’re forgetting is that the very skills that propelled them to success in sports are those that can also help them come out the other side stronger, wiser, and more resilient. These include positive self-talk to frame the situation as a welcome challenge rather than a defeat. Goal setting is also going to come in handy – both in establishing your overarching aim of returning to play at full capacity and in outlining stepping-stone milestones along the way. Body language is another big one. I can’t tell you how many players I’ve helped through their post-injury process who come into my office with a frown on their face, their shoulders hunched, and their eyes cast down to the ground. I’ll sometimes challenge by asking, “What’s wrong?” The reply is often along the lines of, “What do you mean, Jim? I broke my arm!” I then respond with, “Yes, but that’s just one bit of your body. What happened to the rest of you to make you look so down?”
I’ll explain what I observed, and let them know that posture is like self-talk for the body. If you can carry yourself as if you’re confident, bold, and upbeat, then you’re more likely to feel that way, which will predispose you to a rehab process that’s more of a valuable learning experience than a horrendous trial. Choose to walk around like a winner and you’ll prevail during your rehab and, soon enough, when you get back on the court. Attitude dictates action.
If your injury is serious enough to warrant a surgical procedure, this can be one of the most emotionally draining components of your comeback. Part of the issue is the unknown – you’re not a doctor, much less an orthopedic surgeon, so you don’t understand the ins and outs of what’s going to happen when you go under the knife. What you do know is that Google is giving you all these horror stories about what could go wrong, because your curiosity got the better of you when you pulled up the search bar.
Attack and Distract
Rather than being a time of fear and anxiety, the days before you go into surgery are another opportunity for you to re-frame the situation and take charge. This is when you decide to be active rather than passive, and go into attack mode. OK, you’re not the one performing the procedure, but just like when you get on a plane, it’s best to actively surrender control and let the expert be the expert. You picked this professional and this hospital for a reason, so be confident in that.
Next, get answers to your questions – as well as a realistic prognosis – from the source. This could be during your pre-surgery consultation with your doctor, or in a conversation about what will come next with your physical therapist. They’re going to be much better, more objective sources than whatever the internet can serve up. Other proactive to-do’s include packing your overnight bag, making sure you’re all squared away with insurance, and asking a friend or family member to pick you up from the hospital. These might sound like small things, but they can go a long way to making you feel as calm as possible going into your surgery, knowing that you’ve done all you can.
In the week leading up to your surgery date, the other tactic that complements attacking the problem is distracting yourself from any negative thoughts that pop into your head, or trying to respond to unanswerable questions like, “What happens if I don’t make it back?” This is the time to feed the good wolf and starve the bad one. So if you begin freaking out about your upcoming procedure or letting self-doubts spiral, stop the cycle by calling up a buddy and meeting them for coffee. Put on one of your favorite movies, or fire up a playlist that’ll make you feel more positive. The latter will have a dual benefit, as research shows that music can accelerate healing.
The only people who say they’re not worried about surgery are either robots or liars, so it’s OK to be apprehensive. But you can elect to be as well prepared and informed as possible about every aspect of your surgery and what follows it, and so reclaim control over your own narrative. You can also continue building the uninjured areas of your body, as we know from scientific studies that people who are in good shape when they go into the operating theater bounce back much quicker. Doesn’t that sound a lot better than worrying yourself sick about unknowns and what ifs?
If you follow these pointers, you’ll be primed for a successful surgery, positive about the outcome, and prepared to move on to the next stage of your recovery process.
Check back soon for part two, which will share tips for winning your post-surgery rehab.