Monday, September 27, 2010

Sports Injuries Don’t Just Hurt the Body

Most of us who play a sport consider “athlete” as one aspect of our identity.  How important playing a sport is to us can greatly affect how we deal with an injury.  While healing the body is important, the injury to our identity as an athlete can be equally significant.  Some of the possible psychological impacts of sport injuries include:

Temporary loss of identity:  Many athletes connect the way people view them (popularity, respect) to their role in sport.  During the rehabilitation process, there may be a constant comparison to things that they could do, and the way that others used to view them.  These negative thoughts may work against them in their efforts to heal the body.

Feelings of isolation and being left out:  Athletics presents an important social role, and as a result, injured athletes may feel left out of the interaction with teammates, both competitively and informally.  This loss may be as significant as what we would consider a true “loss” such that a grieving process may take place. This will be especially true in the situation of a career ending injury.

Decrease in self-esteem:  For many athletes, self-esteem is connected to performance ability and achievement.  Injury for some athletes may have a significant impact on self-image and long term goal achievement.  This decrease in self-esteem may carry over into academic performance and personal relationships. 

Depending on the severity of the injury, other possible psychological impacts include anger, guilt, post-traumatic stress disorder, helplessness, and depression.  Each of these concerns may contribute to an athletes’ ability to recover well and return to post injury performance, which again can result in depressive symptoms and repeat the psychological pattern.

Here are a few things that parents and coaches can do to help injured athletes heal their minds. 

* Help athletes to acknowledge and recognize the trauma and loss that has occurred, and provide support as they experience the grieving process.  Athletes (and even coaches) sometimes engage in denial regarding the true impact of a sports injury.  This denial can result in additional injuries or negative psychological impacts.

* Provide encouragement and support during the rehabilitation process.  Due to many of the psychological impacts of sport injury, athletes may not be as motivated to engage in the rehab process.  Providing support and acknowledging the barriers may be helpful.

* Normalize their experiences of fear of re-injury.  Athletes may be apprehensive to express their concerns and fears.  Allow them to recognize that fear is a normal reaction, and that they are not alone in that experience. 

* Particularly for career-ending injuries, help athletes re-orient to alternative options.  Many athletes, particularly those who have been playing sports since early childhood, have not had the opportunity to fully develop other identities and options.  Exposing them to those possibilities is important in helping them to feel as though they have a path and some direction. 

* Finally, some athletes have such a difficult experience following a sport injury that counseling or professional support may be necessary.  Keep an eye out for signs of more significant psychological concerns such as increased isolation, poor concentration, changes in appetite, and feelings of hopeless or worthlessness.  These signs indicate that there is a need to go beyond the training room in the healing process.   

Dr. Nyaka Niilampti is a licensed psychologist at Southeast Psych with a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and a master's in sports psychology.  She sees clients of all ages and specializes in performance enhancement, relationship concerns, diversity issues, and the treatment of anxiety and depression.  She can be contacted at 704-552-0116.