Earlier, we explored two phases of your rehab journey from a mindset perspective: the stage between when you got hurt and your reparative surgery, and then what came after your procedure (or, if you didn’t need surgery, the acute and chronic phases). Now it’s time to turn our attention to the period when you’re nearing a return to play.
By this stage, you’re almost fully healed. You’ve been to physical therapy day after day, done your
exercises at home, and maybe even got back in the weight room to start regaining your strength. Yet
while your body is just about ready to get back on the field, your mind might still need some work. All
too many athletes return to their sport physically ready without being mentally prepared. Let’s look at
some tactics you can utilize to nail this important transition.
Set Intrinsic and Extrinsic Goals
The first thing you should do is a little goal-setting. For the past few weeks or months (or perhaps
longer), your sole aim has been fixing yourself so you can get back to the sport you love and help your
teammates. As you’ve almost hit this target, it’s time to look a bit further into the future and set some
new goals. The temptation at this point is to be unrealistic, particularly if you’re by nature a positive
person. I want you to harness every ounce of this positivity, but let’s not get carried away. Very few
players achieve peak performances immediately after returning from injury.
It’s probably going to take time and a few games for you to get a feel for the flow of the action again,
and to understand what your post-injury capabilities are. As your body isn’t used to the rigors of
competition, you might fatigue more quickly than you used to as you build your endurance back up. And
if you play a team sport, it will also take a while for the rest of the squad to get used to you being out
there with them. The same goes for your coaches. If you’re an individual athlete, it’s best to not go all
out in your first post-injury contest, but rather to use it to build confidence in your newly rebuilt body.
With all this in mind, I encourage you to set a couple of different goals. By all means establish an
overarching, extrinsic, performance-related one, like qualifying for an end-of-season championship if
you’re in a solo discipline or helping your team make the playoffs. It would also be beneficial to set an
intrinsic goal, like recapturing the joy that you felt when playing as a kid.
Gratitude, Not Statitude
Once you get back on the court, track, or whatever your playing surface is, it can be tempting to start
fixating on results, whether that’s points per game, times, or whatever. I’m not saying that these don’t
matter, because of course every sport has some kind of objective way to measure performance. But I
encourage you to not become too wrapped up in the numbers, particularly during your first few weeks
back. As you’re going to be dealing with a body that’s just getting back into shape and a mind that’s
bombarded with stimuli having been away from the game for a long time, it’s quite possible that your
stats will take a little dip compared to where they were before you got hurt. In which case, it’s very easy
to get despondent and start thinking self-defeating thoughts like, “I’m never going to be the same.”
Yes you will! You’ve just got to be patient, persistent, and give yourself a little grace while you get used
to the rigors of being back out there competing. The delta between being laid up and performing at the
highest level is very wide, so naturally it’s going to take some time to cross it. Instead of obsessing over
averages and other numbers, I suggest that you center your mind on more subjective matters that can’t
be measured by a box score. Consider how thankful you are to be doing the thing you love again with
teammates and coaches who care about you, a body that is revitalized, and a mindset that has prepared
you to conquer. Choose to practice gratitude over statitude.
Just as your recovery wasn’t a linear process, neither is returning to competition. It’d be nice if every
game you felt a bit stronger or every race you ran a little faster, wouldn’t it? But unfortunately, that’s
not the way the body or life always goes. You might feel the occasional twinge of pain, take a while to
recapture full range of motion, or have to deal with the effects of overcompensating on the side of
yourself that wasn’t injured. If your team is in the midst of a hectic schedule, perhaps tiredness will
creep in to a greater degree than you anticipated, somewhat limiting your output.
It’s helpful to expect these things, acknowledge that all of them are OK, and keep pressing onward
without catastrophizing. It’s also crucial that you don’t tense up too much or over-fixate on a little
tightness, as doing so will predispose you to re-injury. Try to stay loose and focus on playing your best
game, rather than allowing your mind to settle on your sore shoulder or stiff knee. Of course it will take
a while for the joint, muscle, ligament, or tendon to get used to the demands of playing.
If you do have to leave the field, don’t despair. In battling back to competition, you’ve already
encountered a huge obstacle and not only survived, but thrived. Apply the same can-do mindset to your
play now and over the coming weeks. If the big picture starts to seem overwhelming, zoom in and find a
way to win a small victory today. Whereas if today got you down, zoom out and see whatever happened
as a necessary step in your road back to excellence. You’re a warrior and setbacks don’t phase you. In
fact, you relish them because they give you the opportunity to learn more about yourself and to grow as
both an athlete and a person. So what if you have a stinker of a game now and again? You’ll simply look
at what happened, let go of what went wrong, and focus on doing more of what went right, so that you
do better the next time. That’s what winners do. And you’re a winner.
The Greek philosopher Epictetus wrote, “No matter what happens, it is within my power to turn it to my
advantage.” This is just as true with your injury as with any other obstacle. If you approach it as a chance
to learn, grow, and develop yourself, you’ll come back stronger – both physically and mentally – and be
better prepared to win.