The impact of psychology on sports injury recovery

Sports injuries can be physically and mentally taxing experiences for performers at all levels of competition. While the physical aspect of recovery often takes centre stage, the role of psychology in the rehabilitation process may be equally, and in some cases,
more, crucial.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the fascinating and often underestimated impact of psychological factors that influence sports injury recovery. From the mindset of the injured performer to examples of strategies employed by sports psychologists and coaches, we’ll delve into how the psychological factors can may play a pivotal role in not only healing the body but also strengthening the athlete’s overall resilience and readiness to return to the game.

Whether you’re an performer looking to optimise your recovery or simply curious about the intersection of sport and psychology, join us as we uncover the considerable influence of the mind on the path to injury rehabilitation.

How does sustaining a sports injury affect us?

An almost inevitable consequence of participating in sport or exercise activities is that we get injured at some point. Of course, this is somewhat ironic given that the purpose of participating in that activity is often to improve health (whether that be physical and/or mental health) as well as possibly aiming to fulfil a range of possible motives.

Sustaining an injury often results in having to deal with the inability to achieve those motives, and the accompanying emotional responses that can adversely affect how we feel, about ourselves and all that is going on around us. 

 Indeed, for some sports participants, being injured can trigger a range of mental health issues, from mild to more severe, including feeling irritable, frustrated and isolated to suffering anxiety, depression and disordered eating. 

But a person’s psychological responses to injury can actually enhance or boost physical recovery, resulting in them returning to their sport stronger than before, both physically and mentally. However,  in some cases those responses can delay recovery, and even have a negative effect on the healing process.

Why is good mental health so important to sports injury recovery?

Depending on the role that sport plays in a person’s life, at whatever standard – be it recreational, competitive or professional – reactions to injury can range from being inconvenienced or annoyed to being inconsolable and devastated. 

For a lot of people an injury that takes them away from their sport is not a big deal, and life continues with little in the way of adverse effects, while for others it can be quite traumatising. Of course, for those towards this latter end of the scale, those emotions can spill over into other parts of their life, for example their job, their relationships and their interactions with friends and family.

It may start to become apparent why it’s important to look out for both an injured person’s mental health as well as their physical health. In many cases it will not be an issue, but for others it makes sense to access support, in the form of someone who is trained to identify and address any such issues that may arise.

There are many circumstances in which an injury can impose a greater emotional burden on someone that many might imagine, mostly determined by the reason(s) they have for participating in their chosen sport. Many will be of the opinion that it is the professional sportsperson, who makes their living and pays the mortgage from their sport, or the elite non-professional performer whose dream or goal is selection to go to the Olympics, such as climbers, modern pentathletes, boxers and hockey players, for whom an injury is most traumatic. 

However, that is not the case. There are others who structure their life around sport in different ways who may be equally affected. Consider the long-distance runner who uses that activity as a means to relax, get away from the rigours of everyday life, have space to think (or an opportunity to not have to think and just enjoy the freedom and their surroundings), as stress relief, to feel competent at something, to work towards a competitive goal or just because they like the label of being a ‘runner’ and have an identity that is based around that persona. Consider the person who plays badminton in the village hall or local leisure centre twice a week; who bases their whole social life around those two occasions and enjoys the conversations and connection with others that they might not have otherwise; who uses those sessions to arrange their weekend activities or who just likes to feel the exhilaration of having run around a little for an hour or so. Consider the person who goes to reformer pilates, spin and boxercise classes as a way of controlling their weight or for other cosmetic, fitness or health reasons. 

For these, and many others, a sports injury that prevents them from fulfilling their particular reason for participating can have a considerable effect on their emotional and mental status and even their life more broadly. Acknowledging and understanding this possibility and having support available to help patients who might be experiencing such issues is what separates an outstanding clinic from a good one.

How can psychological factors affect recovery from a sports injury?

Ideally, treatment of the physical symptoms of an injury, such as through professional physiotherapy, will allow the person to return to their sport, exercise activity and/or job with full function and a low chance of re-injury. 

However, full function may be prevented due to factors which are more psychological in nature. It is well established that having unrealistic expectations for recovery or experiencing, for example, fear of re-injury, fear of movement or having high levels of anxiety will adversely affect the likelihood and speed of recovery. 

Indeed, there is evidence to show that, ironically, those issues can actually considerably increase the chances of slow recovery and re-injury. This is partly due to the effect of negative emotions on the healing process within the body and partly due to the effect that those emotions have on behaviours such as attendance and engagement with rehabilitation, eating patterns and the likelihood of participating in that and other physical activity. 

There is also plenty of evidence to show that injury may also result in feeling low and perhaps even varied levels of depression, which may be caused by, and cause, withdrawal which makes things even worse. As a consequence, depression, a common experience for injured athletes, has been associated with worse patient-reported outcomes, higher levels of pain, and increased rates of post-surgical complications. 

Of course, on the other hand, some psychological factors have been associated with improved sports injury recovery outcomes. For example, having a well-developed athletic identity can motivate a person to demonstrate full commitment to their rehabilitation resulting in a more balanced and timely return to sport, as can having realistic expectations for recovery, having resilience and good levels of self-esteem.

How to support your physical and mental health after a sports injury

So, what can be done to support those sustaining an injury to either get back to their sport without experiencing some of these issues or help people work through the emotional side of their recovery?

A lack of awareness of the benefits of support, a lack of understanding of what injury psychology entails and/or shame or stigma attached with seeking support may prevent someone who is struggling emotionally from seeking that support or help.

Clearly the main aim of the injury rehabilitation process is to ensure that all aspects are taken into account, considered and addressed, including both the physical and mental/emotional side of things. While specifically addressing mental and emotional health issues is not specifically the role of the sports injury treatment and rehabilitation team, it is clear that the better physiotherapy clinics will be staffed by professionals who acknowledge and understand the broader issues and show an interest in all aspects of recovery. 

They may, for example, gauge the level of mental as well as physical symptoms by simply enquiring about how a patient is coping from an emotional standpoint (which can be extremely valuable in itself). 

They may work to normalise the situation for patients and their families. Most people, especially athletes, are often not accustomed to showing weakness (the requirements of their sport dictate this). If they are sad, fearful or upset, many try to fight through their feelings alone or push them aside. 

The treatment and rehabilitation team may contribute to changing this culture by making patients aware that it’s OK and pretty normal if they are struggling emotionally and while they will acknowledge that it can be uncomfortable and not exactly fun, difficult emotions are a normal part of getting injured. They are also likely to have someone who is employed within the physiotherapy clinic who they may refer you to who is qualified and experienced to work with patients who are experiencing more than just the physical symptoms associated with injury and wish to get support

Physiotherapy and sports injury rehabilitation in Crewe

The Radcliffe Group exemplifies all that is good about understanding that injury and the rehabilitation process may involve both a physical AND mental challenge to those who seek treatment and support for injuries that they have sustained. 

All members of the Radcliffe Group team have a good awareness of some of the issues that may arise during your sports injury recovery journey, and each are capable and willing to offer support within their own area of treatment or rehabilitation provision. They also recognise the need for more specialist advice and support, which at the Radcliffe Group is provided by experienced Sports Psychologist, Neil Roach, who has extensive experience in the sporting arena.

If you’re looking for professional help in recovering from a sports injury and getting back to the sport you love, our expert multi-disciplinary team are here to help.

Find out more about our physiotherapy and rehabilitation services, and book a consultation at our Crewe clinic today.

t. 01270 918078

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