The physical pain one endures through an injury is only a small part of the pain that the injury inflicts. There is also emotional pain. In this guest post, Lizl Kotz, physical therapist, describes the stages of Kubler-Ross’ “stages of grief” when processing and coming to terms with injury.
I recovered from a serious back injury. My road to recovery was tedious and it felt long, but I recovered stronger than I was before. I don’t want to be injured again but being injured has helped me to start each practice and competition with gratitude for my skill and my health. I know I am not fully in control of my health or really anything for that matter. This truth has helped me to train and compete as if it could be my last. And if it could be my last, you better know I am going to make it count and enjoy it.
Injury can be devastating to an athlete who lives to practice and to perform. There are many losses associated with being injured regardless of the skill level or age. (As a side note, in my mind an athlete is anyone who is committed to their sport and working towards goals. There are no age limits or skill level that excludes anyone from being an athlete).
The physical pain is only a small part of the emotional pain injury inflicts. Therefore, there are stages to progress through similar to the Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief when processing and coming to terms with injury:
Unfortunately, athletes very often get warning signs of an injury developing but because athletes are trained to push through fatigue and discomfort, they often times will ignore the warning signs their body offers. If an injury is caught early on, the treatment is often as simple as rest. If the athlete decides to train through the injury, the recovery process becomes more complicated and tedious. As a physical therapist and a stubborn one at that, I have had to learn the hard way to listen to those initial signs of injury and pull away from training immediately in order to prevent an ache from turning into a dreaded word that ends in -itis.
Athletes thrive on setting goals and following a carefully thought-out training program that will help them reach these goals. Once the realization sets in that training and competition has to cease, the athlete may feel as if a rogue wave has hit them leaving them standing in a puddle of disappointment and frustration. The athlete no longer has their script and feels completely lost. Professional athletes may even feel a sense of resentment towards their coaches and trainers for not being able to prevent their injury.
This stage is often filled with regret. I should have stretched more. Why didn’t I stop playing sooner. Why did I feel the need to train so hard? I should have just trained less and trusted my raw athletic ability. Next time I won’t prepare so much and just enjoy being out there. If this problem with my body can just disappear into thin air, I promise to take better care of my body and not take it for granted again.
Change in routine is hard on most of us and for an athlete who has devoted a lot of time to his sport, having a lot of extra time on his hands can leave him feeling directionless. Not getting a daily dose of endorphins doesn’t help matters either. Many injuries don’t have a clear outcome and a road unknown can leave an athlete feeling hopeless. A compounding problem is that many athletes form their friendships with fellow teammates, coaches and practice partners. This leaves the athlete walking an unknown, lonely road without camaraderie and support.
The final stage in processing the injury is acceptance. I don’t think an athlete ever quite accepts an injury but rather acquiesces to a new plan. To acquiesce essentially means to comply quietly and this is when both the physical and emotional road to recovery can begin.
Traveling the Road to Recovery and Learning Something Along the Way
Let’s face it, being injured stinks but there are valuable lessons to be learned while recovering. The process of healing can start when coaches, parents and healthcare providers acknowledge the emotions associated with injury as normal and valid. If an athlete is depressed, a coach, parent or friend will need to help implement some of the strategies below.
- Be patient with the process of healing and believe in your body’s ability to heal. Use this time to cross train and consider learning a different skill you’ve never had time for. Use your free time to volunteer, this is a great way to lift your spirits. Taking the focus off of your own problem and helping others is a great way to combat depression.
- Choose your health care professionals carefully and then rest in the fact that they have your best interest in mind. Take an active role in your rehab even if it starts with rest. Resting is very difficult for athletes but once an athlete understands that resting is an action and a necessary part of rehabilitation, resting becomes easier.
- Your rehab professional should focus on the area of injury but should also use this time to find imbalances elsewhere in your body and help correct them in order to prevent future injuries. Often times using the recovery time to strengthen areas unrelated to the injury will recover an athlete stronger than they were before.
- Athletes are usually busy and blindly following a plan their parents or coach have established. Use this time to reassess your goals and the training path you are on. Are your goals current? Are your goals realistic? Have you been on auto-pilot following goals someone else chose for you?
- Human nature makes it hard to appreciate our health when we are healthy. Remember that your body is not invincible and make gratitude a part of who you are as an athlete.
- Living through an injury teaches us to be empathetic to other athletes who are hurt. Next time you may just be the person to give another hope by telling them your story of recovery.
- Mental toughness separate athletes from being great and being really great. It is an area in training that is often neglected. Use your time to read articles and books on being mentally strong and take notes. Start a journal filled with mental strategies to refer back to once you are competing again.
- There is nothing wrong with finding your identity in your sport as long as you realize that we are not invincible and our health is not a guarantee. I believe that finding your identity or at least part of it outside of your sport is a good idea and promotes being a well-balanced athlete.