The Mental Struggle of a Sports Injury

Playing beach volleyball

It’s difficult when an injury keeps you away from a sport you love. (I’m on the right)

This post is written by Tonya Stumphauzer. Tonya is a freelance producer, editor, and writer, and when she’s not playing beach volleyball, running, or just enjoying the amazing Southern California lifestyle, she writes for her own blog called Budget and the Beach. You can also follow her on Instagram!

Sports injuries are never fun. But it’s really challenging when it keeps you from doing the things you love to do, like sports or any other kind of physical activity.

My injury occurred at the end of August in an overhand digging class with VolleyCamp Hermosa during a simple warm up. The girl who was my partner threw it slightly to the left of me, and I caught the ball in a weird way, hurting my left pinky finger.

I thought I just jammed it, so I did what most people would probably do and taped it up and carried on with my class, then went home and iced it. Not a stranger to finger injuries in beach volleyball, I assumed it might hurt for several weeks, but that I could just keep taping it up and go on practicing.

At a regularly scheduled doctor’s appointment two weeks later, I had it looked at, and it turns out it was dislocated. Not only that, but since I waited two weeks (every doctor I met liked to remind me that I waited too long), it couldn’t be put back in place unless I had surgery.

Two weeks later, I had the surgery and they put a pin in my finger with a hook (here is a picture if you dare) sticking out of the end. The recovery would be six weeks with the pin (I’m currently at the end of week 6!), followed by occupational therapy. All in all, it could be 3 months (at least) total before I’m able to do anything beach volleyball-related again.

Injuries Are More Than Just Physical

What I mentioned was just the physical side of this injury. What’s not often talked about as much is the mental struggle that can often come with getting hurt, especially if you got hurt playing the sport or physical activity you love. This can often take a much bigger toll on an athlete, especially if you’ve been singularly focused on the sport or activity your whole life, or if your livelihood depends on it.

Ryan Foose, Mental Performance Expert with Strong Mind Consulting (who works with professional athletes and teams by utilizing the principles of Sport Psychology to enhance performance and establish performance excellence), says that for many athletes, the reason they struggle mentally from an injury is because “the injury took away their time and ability to physically do their work, but most importantly it took away part of their identity, especially if they have a high athletic identity. In cases of having a high athletic identity and also having a career-ending injury occur, this can leave an athlete confused, overwhelmed, and unsure of what to do next, which can lead to the common emotions we see when experiencing a loss or death.

We’ve all heard of the 5 Stages of Grief, (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance), right? My stages have been somewhat similar, but I have re-named them to fit my own personal journey. I should also note that the various mental stages have not been linear at all. One day I’ll be feeling positive and the next, down in the dumps.

Yeah, that’s not good.

The “WTF!” Stage

One of the first reactions to hearing I needed surgery was, “are you kidding me! I thought I just jammed my finger!” This is related to the denial stage. “The ball wasn’t even thrown that hard!” I was in disbelief that things had escalated so much.

The “Do I Really Need This?” Stage

Ask anyone what they would do if they had the same injury and you’re going to get 1,000 different answers, which makes figuring out the best course of action for your treatment that much more confusing. At least it was for me.

Some people suggested just letting it go because “of course doctors are going to tell you that you need surgery!” Then they throw in a horror story or two about someone they know who had surgery and “they were never the same after.”

Others suggested giving it more time, throwing some cannabis oil on it and calling it a day, getting a second opinion, and others who said I just “gotta do what’s right for me,” which at that point, I was too torn to know for sure.

In the end, I got a second opinion and was told, “you will regret not getting surgery.” At some point, you just have to make a decision one way or another and go with it.

The “This Is Going to Suck” Stage

This stage is related to the classic anger stage. I started thinking of all the time away from my beloved sport and wondered how I would cope. Not only could I not play beach volleyball, but because I had an open wound, I was told not to get too sweaty, which could cause an infection. This is keeping me from doing other things I love like running and heavier strength training or plyometric workouts.

I’m not saying this to plug VolleyCamp Hermosa, but going to classes is pretty addictive. I was there 3-4 days a week training, being with friends, and felt like part of a tribe. Having that taken away was a big blow. It was just as much my social life as it was exercise.

Surgery.

The “Left Behind” Stage

This emotion, related to depression in the 5 Stages of Grief, is the one that’s been the most difficult. I tend to go back and forth between this emotion and feeling more positive.

Injuries can feel like dog years. Yes, three months doesn’t seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but to athletes who rely on sports or physical activity for their job, social life, weight management, endorphins to combat depression or anxiety, etc., it can seem like double or triple the time.

For me at the current moment, I don’t know how much rehab I’ll need or when my finger will feel OK so that uncertainty is scary. “How long will I not be able to play?” “Will I lose a lot of the skills I worked so hard all summer for?” “What if I get re-injured?”

That sadness also comes with a nice side dish of guilt when I feel bad about, well, feeling bad, because it could be “so much worse,” such as an illness or more severe injury I couldn’t recover from.

Lastly, there is also a feeling of being left behind not only with physical abilities but socially as well. It can feel very isolating to not feel like you are part of a tribe or perhaps a team anymore. It’s been hard for me knowing classes are still going on, people are still playing and having fun, and all I’m able to do is go on walks and do some light strength training at home.

Dr. James Millhouse, Sports Psychologist and author of The Parents Manual of Sport Psychology: A Practical Guide To Achieving Athletic Success, says “different athletes feel different things, but undesirable responses include worrying about healing from the injury, depression related to fear of the future, and a change from the daily routine to which they are accustomed including being with their teammates, which is a social loss. Generally, athletes feel rewarded from games and training and the loss of that reward system also can lead to depression.”

The “Rocky” Stage

Since I like to end on a high note, this is the highest of mental states I’ve experienced during my injury/recovery. Taking breaks from your favorite sport is never a bad idea. Of course in a perfect world, it’s voluntary. Focusing on another sport or leisure activity (or maybe just taking a few weeks off completely) can re-energize you, help heal your body, and make you miss your sport a little so you can come back to it with more purpose and a renewed love.

When I’m in a good mental space, I picture myself like the character Rocky Balboa and staging a big comeback. I can see breaking down my game a little more slowly and patiently so I can unlearn one or two (Mark and Brandon would say 15-20) bad beach volleyball habits I have. 🙂

I get a little zen and think about what this is all teaching me. Maybe patience, compassion for myself, empathy for others with illnesses or injuries, or letting go of perfectionism? Probably all of the above!

Out on a walk in my neighborhood. Can’t complain about the view!

How to Cope With a Sports Injury

It’s OK If You Don’t Always Feel Positive

While I’m not an expert, I do have some advice. The first is to say it’s OK to experience different emotions and even “negative” emotions. Athletes, especially ones who want to be perceived as physically and mentally tough, may try to brush their feelings aside, especially the darker ones. They might try to power through with a stiff upper lip or “suck it up.”

While it’s good to focus on being mentally strong, it’s important to acknowledge that you are human, and you are still OK if you feel sad, lonely, anxious, or any other emotion that you might think of as weak.

Talk to friends, your coach, teammates, other people who are going through or have gone through an injury, or if you are really feeling hopeless or suicidal, please seek professional help from a doctor or therapist. Don’t isolate yourself!!!

Use Mental Imagery

One coping mechanism Dr. Millhouse suggests is using mental imagery, especially if you are feeling less confident about your physical skills because of an injury. “Mental imagery of actually performing well without the injury interfering is helpful in several ways. One value is keeping the body sharp. Execution starts in the mind and imagining playing without the injury being a factor can keep the neurological level of execution at peak efficiency. In addition, research has shown that when you imagine execution, particularly in a deeply focused state, the mind cannot differentiate it from the real thing. Therefore, there is a benefit of increasing confidence by mentally practicing effective execution.   

Have a Mental Plan

Millhouse also suggests having a mental plan for your recovery. “Research has shown that patients with a positive mental attitude do better in recovery from any illness. It is important to be positive to maximize the healing resources of the body. It is important to be realistic, but not to expect negative outcomes.

VolleyCamp Hermosa coach Mark Burik and students

Can’t wait till I’m back in beach volleyball class again!

Journaling

Foose suggests journaling as a positive way to cope with an injury. “This journal is meant for their reflections during this rehabbing process.  It’s important for them to journal their process each day because it serves as physical evidence to help build their self-efficacy and their self-trust when they are fully recovered.”

Finally, for friends, teammates, coaches, or trainers who know someone who is injured, my advice would be to check in on them every once in a while. I know this has meant a great deal to me when someone just texts me to “see how I’m doing.” Include them, especially if they are kids and part of a team, to of course games/tournaments/practices, but also social events as well. To an injured athlete, they may feel like they don’t have anything to contribute or don’t want anyone to feel sorry for them, so help them feel like they are still important and part of the group or team.

Find ways to help them feel that even in recovery they are really strong and the expectation is once recovered, they are going to do great. I think athletes especially rise to the occasion of not only the high expectation they have of themselves, but for the bar that others (trainers, coaches, fellow athletes) raise for them as well.

What other suggestions do you have to positively cope with a sports injury or any other kind of injury?

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