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Is there an upside to a sport injury?

Is there an upside to a sport injury?

5 min read
  • Sport psychology

Injury is, unfortunately, an inevitable reality for athletes today. Younger athletes in particular are at a high risk of injury, often resulting from long and intensive training hours, and less time sleeping. Despite it being par for the course in elite sport, most professional athletes will dread injury. It can be painful and frustrating, involving endless hospital trips and consultations, a long time out of action and away from team mates, and possibly putting one’s career on hold.

However, research has begun to speculate: is injury really so unfortunate? Studies and stories from the world of sport have started to point towards the possibility of a “silver lining” of injury, with it providing an opportunity to take time out, reflect, and grow through adversity.

So, we thought that we’d explore whether there is actually an upside to injury… And if there is, how can we help athletes to harness this?

The dark side of injury

Before we delve into the subject, we need to acknowledge first the damaging effect that injury can have on athletes. Injury can stop athletes’ progression in their career pathway, and many athletes struggle greatly to deal with it.

On top of the usual physical pain, injury can also cause mental health problems. This includes negative emotional responses such as anger, frustration, and lack of motivation. Injury can even lead to sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, and social withdrawal. Because of this, we are often asked to help both elite and amateur athletes through this tough period to help them bounce back at their best.

The upside of injury

However, some have suggested that there are positives that can come from injury, that athletes can use the period of time following injury for self-reflection and as an opportunity to grow through adversity.

Sometimes we need a pause in life, to reflect on how we are doing, where we are going in life, and whether we want this to change or not. What a young athlete wants when they set out on their career may not be what they want as they get older. Therefore, recovering from injury gives athletes the chance to re-evaluate and re-focus their sense of purpose.

Taylor Phinney, a talented professional cyclist who experienced severe injury from a crash in 2014, exemplifies this upside of injury. Phinney explains that his injury allowed him to remove himself from the “bubble” of sport which he was absorbed in. In the world of sport, athletes can easily get into a mindset where they view any minute not spent on training or competing as wasted. They can become set on continually reaching performance benchmarks. And the pressures that athletes might put on themselves to achieve can build up unnecessary stress. Often so consumed in their sport, injury forces athletes to take time out, which they otherwise would not even consider.

Phinney recognises the benefit that this time after his injury gave him. The opportunity he’d had to step back and reflect allowed him to remain a dedicated athlete achieving at the highest level, but with a gained sense of perspective in life that enabled him to be healthier and happier.

So, having an injury can be a tough time for athletes, but it also offers an opportunity for athletes to grow, and thrive off the time out. Here are some tips we’ve put together for how athletes can take some positives from injury.

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How we help athletes grow through injury

Take time to reflect

Often, we help athletes to reflect on and re-evaluate their goals. For example, we help many of our athletes to switch their goals from being overly achievement-oriented to being emotion-oriented, geared towards making them feel happier and more fulfilled. This can reduce some of the pressures of professional sport and any fear of failure, helping them to feel more positive.

And of course, you can still be driven towards achievement – just in a more positive way. Re-orienting your goals in a way that focuses on maintaining your well-being can also boost your self-esteem and confidence.

Focus on something else

Injury forces you to take some time out. Instead of worrying too much about what this means for your career, focus your attention on something you can control. Think in terms of days and weeks rather than months and years. Uncertain situations, including looking too far into the future, can make you feel stressed. Instead, give yourself short-term goals that keep you focused and motivated.

For example, a lot of our injured footballers initially tend to think about the fact that they are not training, that everyone else is on the pitch or that someone else is getting their spot. However, changing the focus to the process of getting fitter everyday can help reduce the stress, help them recover and put an emphasis on a positive future.

Find another “role”

Having a moment to step back can allow you to find another “role” in life, besides being an athlete. You might take the chance to connect more with your community, build stronger relationships with the people around you, or take up a new pastime. Research suggests that having multiple ‘roles’ is beneficial for well-being, as opposed to having one single role that defines you.

Sometimes, our professional athletes say that they feel as though they must be 100% dedicated to sport all the time. Whilst this can be helpful for some, others may find it difficult to take time off if their sole dedication is sport. So, we often have conversations around why it’s healthy to have several things in life that they can invest in and care about. The time after an injury can be a good time to discover and develop this.

Grow through adversity

There are two paths an athlete can take when injured. You can view your injury as something holding you back. Or, you can view it as an opportunity to step back and gain perspective.

Seeing it as the be all and end all, allowing it to get the better of you, is not an effective way of coping. On the other hand, seeing setbacks as enhancing and realising that they can help you grow and improve is a much healthier approach. This resilience will allow you to manage your emotions better, developing your ability to deal with reactions to successes and failures. Being able to see your injury in a positive light will develop your growth mindset, including the belief that you can come back after an injury stronger, healthier, and able to improve your performance.

Final thoughts

Sometimes, it can be hard to come to this kind of positive reasoning by yourself. Athletes might be too devastated by an injury to be able to notice the upsides at all, or they might think that these tips don’t apply to them. Our sports psychologists can guide athletes through the emotional turmoil that accompanies injury. That’s why here at InnerDrive, we strive to provide effective and high-quality support that is personalised to each individual athlete. If you’re interested in having some support with one of our experienced sports psychologists, or want to learn more, please do get in touch.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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