What do you think of when you hear athletic injury?
You might be thinking, well, it could be something as minor as a broken finger, or as major as a broken leg.
Let’s break that down a bit. A broken leg is surely a monumental injury for pretty much any athlete. A broken finger might not seem so bad, but what if you’re a soccer goalie? Goalies have to stop balls hurled at them with incredible force, and might hardly be able to fit their hands into their gloves if their fingers are swollen and wrapped. So, a broken finger might not be so minor after all.
The point is that it doesn’t always matter what the injury is. It matters more how the specific injury will affect a specific athlete in his/her specific role, and it matters even more how the injured athlete perceives that injury.
Do these terms sounds familiar to you: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance? These are the Five Stages of Grief, as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. These stages outline the progression individuals tend to experience when handling a loss, such as a loss of a job, pet, or loved one. Many athletes also experience these stages of grief as they recover from injury.
Here is how you can make it through these stages and come out stronger on the other side.
What it means: “It’s not actually that bad.” “I probably won’t be out that long.” “This isn’t happening.”
These are common thoughts when athletes first experience an injury. This is denial. Athletes simply don’t want to come to terms with how bad the injury is, or sometimes that the injury even happened. Denying the injury can help athletes cope in the moment. But, it doesn’t help for long. In fact, denying the injury, or the severity of it, can lead to further injury if athletes continue to play through the injury. It’s important to move out of this stage quickly.
How to move on: Allow yourself to feel the emotions you’re feeling, whatever they may be. Listen to your coaches, trainers, and parents. Acknowledge that the injury exists.
What it means: “It’s not fair!”
After acknowledging that the injury is real, athletes tend to feel angry. This is normal. They might also feel disappointed, discouraged, or confused. Typically, athletes feel angry that this is happening to them and that it’s holding up their athletic progress.
How to move on: Think about what you’re angry about and where you’re directing that anger. Yes, of course you’re angry about the injury, but be specific. Are you angry that you’re going to lose your spot? Are you angry that you’ll be out for the game against your biggest rival? Or because you’re only three weeks back from rehabbing another injury? Identifying specifically what’s making you angry can help you manage that anger.
Also, think about where you’re directing your anger and how it’s manifesting. Are you lashing out at your trainer or parents? Or are you being short and stubborn with your teammates or your coaches? Are you noticing that you feel tight or that you’re not sleeping as well? Paying attention to these changes can help you recognize that you’re in this Anger stage, which can help you be aware of needing to move on.
What it means: “If only I hadn’t tried to steal second.” “If only I’d passed it off and not gone in for the layup.”
The bargaining stage is all about trying to regain control in a situation in which athletes feel helpless. Thinking about different decisions they could have made is common, but not helpful. No one can go back in time. Focusing on the past does not help athletes move forward.
How to move on: Focus on the present moment. Pay attention to your rehab plan. Stick to it the same way you’d stick to your training routine. Commit to it and be determined. At the same time, avoid overdoing it. Just like you shouldn’t add extra sprints or weights to a workout from your coach (because you know your coach has a plan for how you should progress over time), don’t do more than you’re told during rehab sessions. You could end up making the injury worse.
What it means: “I don’t even care about this anymore.”
Particularly for athletes whose injuries require a long period of rehab, depression can set in. For some athletes, this is a mild feeling. They feel down, less energized than usual, and long to be back in action. For other athletes, it’s more severe. They notice changes in their appetite and sleeping patterns, and really start to lose motivation to work to get better. They might start to isolate themselves from teammates, family, or friends, too.
This can be a slippery slope. It’s very important to try to remain self-aware during the rehab process to avoid feeling serious depression.
How to move on: Constantly engage in conversations with your trainers, your coaches, and your teammates. Talk to them about how you’re feeling and how you’re progressing with rehab. Be open about your feelings. There’s nothing wrong with feeling sad, frustrated, or left out. Nearly all athletes experience these feelings.
Stay as involved as possible with your team. If possible, do your rehab exercises on the field, court, course, or deck so that you can watch the team practice, listen to coach instructions and feedback, and still feel like part of the team.
Focus on your progress and what you’re doing well. Understand that setbacks are possible and not permanent. Remember that you control how hard you work.
What it means: “This stinks, but it happened, and I can get through it.”
Not all athletes reach the point when they can fully accept their injury, but those who do, find that it’s immensely helpful to their progress. Accepting the injury and its level of severity allows athletes to really face it head on and be honest about the injury’s impact and what it will take to recover from it.
Athletes finally understand that they can’t go back and change the past, and that if they don’t stay focused and motivated on their rehab goals, then they’re never going to return to play (or perhaps won’t return as strong).
If you find yourself face to face with an injury, then be purposeful and deliberate with your rehab process. The more engaged and reflective you are with your experience with your injury, the more likely you are to recognize your progression through the stages of grief. This is significant because the more aware you are of the stage you are currently in, the more control you have to try to push yourself forward into the next.
Remember, every athlete handles injuries differently. The most important thing is to think about how you handle them and what – or whom – you’ll need to help you recover successfully.