Robert B. Andrews MA, LMFT
For many athletes, coming back from a severe sports-related injury is a terrifying ordeal. They have been cleared to play physically, but their fear of suffering another injury can be debilitating. These fears can cause complications with their return to play. Many suffer from confusion, anxiety, anger, shame, and guilt. If they have been “cleared to play,” why do they feel so bad? Many feel something is wrong with them if they can’t come back confident and in a reasonable frame of mind.
I talked with a soccer player about a teammate who suffered a strained ACL. The injured athlete took time off for the injury to heal. When they returned to play, they were terrified. They were afraid of injuring their knee again and played with anxiety, fear, and apprehension. They did not play all out, and their hesitancy was apparent. It grew worse with each game. As their anxiety and fear grew, they became more emotional during the games. It was evident to everyone watching that something was wrong.
I became excited about helping this athlete overcome their sports injury trauma. As I reached for a business card for the parent of the struggling athlete, I was told that during their last game, the athlete had torn their ACL completely. The field was in bad condition, and their fear of re-injury was amplified. They were crying while trying to play soccer. They ended up in a fight for the ball and injured their knees. My heart sank when they told me this part of the story.
Too Many Sad Stories
I was on the sidelines of a football game watching a running back who had torn his ACL the year before. He was hesitating as he ran and favoring the injured knee. After the game, I told his coach that he was going to suffer an ACL injury to the other knee if he didn’t get some help with the trauma from the first injury. The next week, he tore his other ACL.
I was watching a game on television, and I observed hesitation and apprehension in an offensive lineman who had injured his left knee the year before. I turned the game off at halftime. A few days later, I called his athletic trainer and mentioned to him that I believed that this lineman was heading towards an injury to his other knee. He asked me why I felt this way. I told him what I observed while watching the game. He said that was interesting and that the lineman had torn his other ACL in the fourth quarter of that game.
Is the Wrong Message Being Sent?
An athlete I helped overcome a horrific injury was interviewed about his “miracle comeback.” When they asked this athlete what they did to make such a profound comeback, they said they just had a “really strong attitude and mind set.” They didn’t mention all the hard work they did mentally and emotionally to overcome the trauma they suffered while injured and unable to compete. I believe this athlete did a disservice to other athletes who are trying to overcome the trauma and the mental and emotional blocks that stand in the way of a full “100%” recovery. They sent a message to other injured athletes that all you have to do is have a strong mindset, and everything will be okay.
This message can have a profoundly negative impact on the athlete who is struggling to get back mentally and emotionally. It can create doubt and confusion and erode self-confidence. Many athletes never find their way back from injuries because they can’t overcome this cauldron of powerful emotions.
The New Way Back From Injury
I was watching a game on TV recently. An athlete I helped overcome a serious injury was having a great game. It was apparent that they were confident, in command, and had no fear of re-injury. The commentator said it was apparent that this athlete was back physically, but that they were back mentally too. My wife asked me to replay his comment. We listened to it again, and she said, “Someone gets it.” This commentator could see from the way this athlete was playing that they had experienced a complete psychological recovery from their injury too.
I wish I could have helped the young soccer player before they suffered a completely torn ACL. I wish I could help every injured athlete. Treating the traumatic nature of sports-related injuries puts the athlete back in charge and rids them of fear, anxiety, apprehension, depression, and self-doubt. They return to play mentally stronger and tougher. Not only do their attitude and outlook get better, but they come back wiser and more mature. This wisdom and maturity permeate all areas of their lives. They learn a lot in the process of coming back.