Kobe Bryant breaking a bone in his knee after coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, Derrick Rose tearing a cartilage after returning to play after a torn ACL, and Lindsey Vonn partially tearing her ACL after returning from a complete ACL tear all reveal the gap in the recovery process for athletes returning to play after suffering serious sports related injuries. Athletes return to competition after being cleared to play physically but their mental and emotional readiness is not part of the current treatment model for athletes returning to play. Addressing the mental and emotional impact of sports related injuries helps athletes face surgery with a confident and positive mindset. They handle surgery better. They approach their recovery process with more focus and intensity. They also return to play absent of the conscious or unconscious fear of re-injury.
Kobe suffered a torn Achilles tendon last season and attempted to return to play at the beginning of this NBA season. Kobe was cleared to play as “100%” by his Doctors and athletic training staff. A few games into the season he tweaked his hamstring. A few games after that his comeback and his season ended when he broke a bone in his knee.
Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose suffered a similar fate. He tore his ACL last NBA season. After a prolonged recovery process he returned to play at the start of this season. A few games in he tweaked his hamstring. The following week he tore a cartilage in his other knee. His return to play this season is questionable at best.
Olympic Gold Medalist Lindsey Vonn tore her ACL in a skiing practice training. After surgery and an intense rehab process she returned to training only to partially tear the ligament again. She is trying to make it through Olympic Trials without fully tearing the ligament.
When an athlete suffers a serious injury a part of the brain called the limbic system is activated. The job of the limbic system is to keep the athlete safe. In the case of a serious sports related injury it means keeping the athlete safe from re-injury. When the limbic system is engaged athletes will consciously and unconsciously make adjustments to protect the injured area. With these adjustments stress and torque move to other areas of the body. From the ankle to the knee, from the knee to the hamstring or back, from the elbow to the shoulder.
I worked with a team that had six athletes suffer serious knee injuries in a thirteen day period. I was fortunate to be able to see three of these athletes before they had surgery. I saw two athletes right after surgery. I was able to work with the sixth athlete as they were returning to play after being “cleared”. Working with these six athletes during their process of returning to play was a remarkable experience. In a sense I had a small sample group to test this theory.
The three athletes I worked with prior to surgery were able to work through all of their fears about the surgical procedure they were about to face. Some of these fears were rational. Is it going to hurt? How long will I be out of competition? What if someone takes my place while I am out? Some of their fears were irrational. What if I wake up during surgery? What if they operate on the wrong knee? What if they cut something else during surgery and my career is over?
Many athletes have fear and anxiety before surgery but very few are able to talk about, process, and work through these fears before surgery. They go into surgery with their brain on full alert and overstimulated. By processing the fear and anxiety before surgery they approach surgery in a calmer and more relaxed state. They are relaxed mentally and emotionally before they enter the operating room.
These three athletes had remarkably positive experiences of surgery. One athlete said that a surgery room nurse asked if they had ever had surgery before because they seemed so calm and confident. Their recovery process was very successful. They approached rehab with a high level of intensity and mental toughness. They all returned to play the next season and suffered no further injuries.
The two athletes I worked with after surgery said that they approached surgery with a lot of fear and uncertainty. They suffered a lot of pain after surgery. Their rehab process was difficult. After just a few sessions we worked through the injury and their rational and irrational fears about rehab and returning to play. They made a great comeback the next season. They played well and suffered no further injuries.
The last athlete went through surgery and extensive rehab. They endured a lot of physical pain after surgery. Rehab had been very tough. There were resistant to their rehab and PT. When they were cleared to play they had tremendous fear and anxiety about suffering another injury. At this time they asked to come see me and we started addressing the injury, the pain and suffering they endured, disconnection from their team, and their fear of being injured again. They made great progress quickly. They went on to play that season. They did very well and suffered no further injuries.
Working with these six athletes confirmed that treating the mental and emotional impact of the injury has a profound impact on the injured athlete. I continue to confirm this treatment model with every inured athlete I am fortunate to be able to work with.
I have also found that the sooner I am able to treat an athlete the better their recovery process and the better their return to play. Seeing the athlete before surgery is the real key.
When I hear about Kobe Bryant, RGIII, Derrick Rose, and Lindsey Vonn I know that there is another resource they can add to their recovery process. Working with athletes before and after surgery helps the athlete return to play stronger, wiser, smarter, more confident, and absent of the fear of re-injury.
For professional teams and agents it helps restore their contractual value to their team. If they play better they are worth more.
But most importantly they are happier and more confident. They love the game or sport again. They trust their bodies to perform at extremely high levels. They are truly “100%” ready to play.