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This is the first part in a series by Dr. Alan Goldberg examining the mind of the athlete who experiences injury and a lengthy recovery process.
You’ve been involved in your sport longer than you can remember. As you’ve grown, so have your strength, endurance and technique. You’ve busted your butt to become as good in your sport as possible and a force to be reckoned with in competitions. Known for your work ethic, consistency and ability to come through in the clutch, you’ve been the one your team has always been able to depend on in crunch time. You live to practice and perform. You have a passion to compete. You flat out love your sport. It’s who you are! It’s how you define yourself. You have dreams to compete at school, maybe get a college scholarship…who knows… maybe even to go beyond to the next level!
Then the unthinkable happens! It seems to have slowly snuck up on you. It’s not like there was any major injury or anything. You didn’t really feel anything pull, pop or break. Perhaps it might have been a lot easier and more straightforward to deal with if you had experienced that. No, this was quite a bit more insidious. After a big competition you noticed some pain and tenderness in your shoulder. “No problem,” you thought to yourself. You’ve dealt with this stuff before. You quickly dismiss it as nothing. The next day in practice you notice that your shoulder still feels tight and sore. “No big deal!” You try to ignore it and push through the pain. When practice ends your shoulder is throbbing and you start realizing that perhaps you were a bit foolish to have forced yourself to work through the pain. That night, when you can’t even lift your arm to brush your teeth, you start to get worried for the first time.
You keep telling yourself there’s nothing really wrong, but the pain just won’t quit. As much as you hate it, the next day you have to go to the coach and tell him you’re a little hurt. He tells you to take a few days off. You’re forced to rest and you absolutely hate it. However, even after you take two days off, the first few movements that you go through in the next practice still kill. In fact, that shoulder feels just as tight and sore as before. But how bad can it really be? Maybe you just need to take a little more time off. However, when the throbbing in your shoulder keeps you up several nights in a row and then out of two more competitions you finally get the message! Something’s very wrong here and it’s time to drag your butt to the doctor!
Seeing a sports medicine specialist confirms your worst fears. Your shoulder is really bad and he says that you have to be out of action for at least two to three months! He claims that you have some form of tendonitis or maybe some potential rotator cuff problems, but that’s all Greek to you. He doesn’t really know how long this is going to take, but what he says next, really gets your attention. Unless you take care of that shoulder and give it enough rest, you may risk doing some permanent damage. What does that mean you ask? He tells you that if you continue to play through the pain, that you may be jeopardizing your athletic career! Is he crazy!! Is he really telling me that I may never play again!! How could that possibly be! Is this guy a quack or what? How could I even survive without my daily dose of this sport?
If you’re a serious athlete and have ever had an experience with an injury, then you KNOW that the physical hurt you feel is only one VERY small part of the overall pain that you have to go through in the rehab process. The psychological pain caused by your injury and the temporary or permanent loss of your sport can be far more devastating than the strained or torn ligaments, pulled muscles, ripped cartilage or broken bones. Unless this psychological pain is directly addressed and “treated”, your overall recovery will be slow and incomplete. Coaches and parents who are sensitive to the issues of the injured athlete help speed up the rehab process and significantly lessen the mental anguish that the athlete must struggle with. Coaches and parents who are insensitive to these very critical issues, cause further trauma to the athlete and may compromise the healing process.
To better understand what happens psychologically when an athlete is kept out of action because of an injury, it’s important to briefly examine the three major functions that sport plays in the athlete’s life. Next: The Three Major Functions Sport Plays in the Athlete’s Life
Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally-known expert in the field of applied sport psychology, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. He is the author of 25 mental toughness training programs and Director of Competitive Advantage. His website is www.competitivedge.com.