Injury Management and Sports Psychology

The Role of Sport Psychology in Injury Recovery

Injury is a common occurrence in sport participation.  Ask any athlete and they will tell you that one of the leading setbacks they can experience is injury. Being injured can mean a number of different things to an athlete outside of the physical pain they experience. Firstly, injury can bring a halt to preparations (i.e., training) and can mean that what they have devoted a lot of their time too and energy can be taken away quite suddenly (Crossman, 1997). For an athlete sport is a part of their identity and therefore sport is a significant part of them. When this is taken away, albeit for a short period of time, this can have a possible negative effect on the way an athlete views themselves.  Additionally, injury can take away the positive reinforcements sport provides where athletes experience a sense of mastery, autonomy and sense of control (Deutsch, 1985). Injury may also be considered a setback because athletes use sport as a way of dealing with stress.

Understandably then, it can be expected that athletes may experience a number of emotional responses and stress upon being injured. Athletes’ emotional experiences differ greatly as no one individual experiences injury the same way. However some emotions are more commonly reported than others and include anxiety, fear, anger, tension, fatigue, disbelief, lack of motivation, and irritation (Ahern & Lohr, 1997; American College of Sports Medicine, 2001; Klenk, 2006). Of course it is normal for athletes to experience these emotions in response to injury however it is important to note that not all athletes experience an observable emotional disturbance to being injured.  They are athletes who seem to take being injured in their stride and their emotional reactions appear to resolve. On the other hand, other injured athletes appear to struggle emotionally and their reactions become problematic when symptoms do not resolve.

Although there is no predictable sequence of athlete’s emotional responses to injury, athletes often display three categories of response to their injury. To help come to terms with their injury, athletes often try to obtain and interpret as much injury-relevant information they can (i.e., “How bad is it?”, “How long?”, “What can/can’t I do”, “How do I fix it?”). Secondly, as already discussed, athletes may experience emotional upheaval and reactive behaviour related to their injury. Often athletes will ask questions or have thoughts that are similar to the following: “I can’t believe this has happened now”, “I’ll never be back to 100%”, and “I am no good to the team now”. Athletes with apparent negative affect can often display a range of signs indicating poor adjustment to injury.

  • Feelings of anger & confusion
  • Obsession with “when can I return to play?”
  • Trying to do too much too soon in terms of rehabilitation program (pushing the limits)
  • Denial (e.g., “The injury is no big deal”)
  • Repeatedly returning to play too soon & experiencing re-injury
  • Exaggerated bragging about accomplishments
  • Dwelling on minor physical complaints
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Alterations in diet
  • Guilt about letting the team down
  • Withdrawal from significant others
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Statements like “no matter what is done, it will never get better”

The final category suggests that athletes come to terms with their injury and engage in effective coping. If their emotional responses resolves rather than becomes problematic, athletes often think or voice that the injury is starting to come good, and ask their support network if there is anything they can do at home or can help out in training.  However, if an athlete is showing problematic symptoms of negative affect as a consequence of their injury (see list of signs of poor adjustment) it is very important for them to seek assistance from a sport psychologist who can help them manage and deal more effectively with their injury thus helping their injury recovery process. Research has shown that negative emotions experienced by injured athletes can influence athletes’ attitudes toward and subsequent recovery from injury (Ahern & Lohr, 1997; Crossman, 1997). The use of psychological strategies have been found to improve injury recovery, mood during recovery, coping, confidence restoration, pain management, and adherence to treatment protocols (Brewer et al., 2000).

Psychological skills such as goal setting, imagery and relaxation can help athletes deal better with stress, reducing chances of injury and stress of injury should it occur. In addition, even athletes who deal with injury effectively can still benefit from learning these strategies as they can be used to enhance performance on a consistent basis. Other psychological skills used to deal effectively with injury but can also be used to enhance performance after returning from injury include self-talk to help athletes have a positive attitude to rehabilitation and build confidence as well as problem solving to help cope with setbacks and look for opportunities. In addition to skills, it is very important for athletes to be educated about their injury and the recovery process to keep them informed and provide them with clear expectations and to help reduce uncertainty.

If you would like more information or you have any questions you would like answered regarding the role sport psychology can play in helping recover from an injury please contact the Brisbane Sport & Exercise Medicine Specialist clinic on (07) 3899 0659.


Ahern, D. K., & Lohr, B.A. (1997). Psychosocial factors in sports injury rehabilitation. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 16, 775 – 768.

American College of Sports Medicine. (2001). Sideline preparedness for the team physician: a consensus statement. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33, 846 – 849.

Brewer, B. W., Cornelius, A. E., Ditmar, T. R., Krushel, R. J., petitpas, A. J., Pohlman, M. H., Sklar, A. J., & Van Raalte, J. L. (2000). Psychological factors, rehabilitation adherences, and rehabilitation outcome after anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. Rehabilitation Psychology, 45, 20 – 37.

Crossman, J. (1997). Psychological rehabilitation from sports injuries. Sports Medicine, 23(5), 333-339.

Deutsch, R. E. (1985). The psychological implications of sports related injuries. The International Journal of Sports Psychology, 16, 232- 237.