We recently caught up with psychologist, Neal Newman, Ph.D. about the mental aspects of working through an injury. As an athlete, you will no doubt experience injuries. However, according to Newman, it doesn’t have to set you back. As a matter of fact, he says that with the right attittude, it can even propel you forward.
Body Helix: How do you help athletes work through the mental challenges that come along with being sidelined due to an injury?
Neal Newman: There are a few things that come to mind: first, you have to face the challenge. Next, you need to be proactive about your recovery and finally, you need to be self-accepting of your limitations.
First, let’s address an athlete’s attitude and how when people get hurt it’s easy to get upset, easy to get discouraged. Some things take a long time to heal, some things don’t recover as well as you’d like but the attitude we take towards dealing with our physical issues is really important to our recovery. I suggest that people view it as a challenge to recover, and so part of the fun in life is facing that challenge. It can be a challenge that you’re eager to face. Your spirits don’t have to be down just because some things are complicated or because you have setbacks. You need to have a good attitude and if you’re facing the challenge, you can view your recovery process as something you even look forward to.
BH: It’s definitely a mind-shift to look at an injury as something of a challenge, rather than a setback. But as an athlete, facing a challenge is ingrained in our blood. It’s what we do every time we set foot on the field/court. Any evidence to support this way of thinking? Why is the attitude so important?
NN: If you’re discouraged and if you don’t think something is possible, you won’t even try. There is almost always some kind of work that you will need to put into your recovery to improve. There is something that you need to do, whether it’s getting your strength back or getting your range of motion back – it requires some work on your part. You won’t persevere if you’re discouraged and think all is doomed and you can’t get better.
BH: All great points! If I am injured and I have bought into the challenge of it all, what’s next?
NN: You need to be proactive and be your own advocate. You need to figure out what will help in your recovery. When I was 35, I had a herniated disc in my back. I went to my doctor and asked if I could start doing some weight training. His response was that I was probably too weak to do it, but I was welcome to try. I started with small weights and then I added a little bit at a time. Eventually, I got to the point where I could play tennis again. But then I noticed that my knees were hurting because when you have a herniated disc you get atrophy down in the legs and so my knees weren’t tracking properly. That’s when I started wearing knee braces to absorb the impact and get things tracking better. I had a problem and I was pro-active in finding a solution.
BH: That’s great advice… we all can work towards becoming better advocates for ourselves.
NN: Yes, and that leads into the final point, which is that you need to be self-accepting about what your limits are. One year, I had a torn wrist and I was always one hit away in a tennis match from needing to get surgery. There were certain shots that I just couldn’t do. You have to set your brain for your limits and appreciate those limits. I played all these events just being careful, but I could play with full energy, but not full impact with certain shots. I just understood that. We’re talking about people facing the challenge. We’re talking about people being proactive about their recovery and we’re talking about people being self-accepting about the limits. It doesn’t mean you don’t do things to try to heal and make things better, but there are going to be times where we just have limits.
BH: Injuries are a part of every athlete’s experience. You’ve pointed out some really great ways we can approach an injury and not let it dictate our future in the sport(s) we love. Anything else you want to add?
NN: I’ll end with a joke about all of this: There was this man who lives a great life and always does things for other people. He’s getting older now and after all these years of doing only for others he has an idea for one thing he’s going to ask God for help with. He prays to God, he says, “God, please let me win the lottery.” So a week goes by, and two weeks go by and he doesn’t win the lottery. Then a month goes by and when he still doesn’t win he says to God, “God after all I’ve done… I’ve only done for other people all these years, why won’t you help me out and let me win the lottery?” Finally, God speaks to him and says, “For goodness sake! Buy a ticket!”
The moral of the story is that we need to do our part in this. We need to have a good attitude, we need to face the challenge and see an injury as something we even look forward to overcoming. We need to see how well we can recover from this, but we have to be smart about it too.