Every athlete I have ever spoken with has talked to me about some kind of an injury at some point in their lives and careers. Even if it was a simple tweak or soreness after a really hard workout, there was some kind of fear that presented itself afterward that caused trepidation and pause. It’s easy to hold back a little when you feel pain at some point. And this runs deeper than just what happens to the body. The mental and emotional response is clear and yet we don’t often work to “rehab” those as much as we rehab the body to get back on the playing field.
So let’s examine this chain of events. Whether it’s a surgically repaired knee or a complete tear, or a sprain or a break, the truth is that it doesn’t really matter what the actual injury is. When you are out of commission for a period of time, you work hard to get back to the place you were, and in many cases, hope to return stronger and better than before the injury. Orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, doctors of all kinds… the visits rack up and if you are serious about your sport, you do everything you can for a speedy recovery. You “can’t wait to get back out there.”
And then the fear sinks in. I have seen it time and time again… therapists reach out to me to ask for some help with the patient that doesn’t seem to be pushing themselves all of a sudden, or the one who still talks about some pain but doesn’t really present the way they should if they were really in pain. There often seems to be no good physical answers for them, yet they still aren’t able to return to the field or court or competition.
So I ask simple questions… “When you think about returning, what do you miss most?” “What are you most afraid of when you get back out there?” “Why do you play/compete?”
Usually in that order, as I use the “sandwich method” to remind players about the love they take to the field every day. So I start with what they miss, a simple reminder of what they want to get back to. Then I bring the difficult to light by asking about the fear straight out. They need to identify what it is, why it is holding them back and what the worst that can happen really is. Then back to the positive with a reminder of the big picture. I tell all athletes if the WHY is big enough, the how/what doesn’t matter. The fear becomes a non-issue and it is so much easier to get back out there despite what holds them back.
Most athletes who return from injury are afraid of multiple things. One is usually the obvious in that they don’t want to go through what they just went through again or in other words, they don’t want to get hurt again. The second thing is usually that they are afraid they will return as less than when they left. They are afraid they will not measure up to other athletes, or just be a lessor version of themselves. This also happens, as athletes get older, as it is difficult to not be the “player they once were.”
They also are afraid that if they don’t perform they may lose their spot… or if someone has taken over for them while they were out that if they do come back, they may not get their spot back at all. Some players don’t know how to deal with the coach’s choices and the fact that they once were a starter who is now on the bench, this is a difficult pill to swallow.
No matter what the fear, it is real and it is often times more crippling than the injury itself. When the athlete comes back to the field, they want things to be like they were before they left, and the truth is no matter how much you work to be stronger than before, or how much you just may never be as good, it will not be the same.
It is up to you to just get out there. If your why is what it should be, and you play or compete for the love of the game, then none of the other stuff will matter anyway.
Keep the why visible and really clear. Everything else will fall into place.
And who knows, you may be better than ever.