Regaining Confidence After a Sports Injury – Developing Your Mental Game and Toughness


I workout with some pretty competitive athletes. Some of them rank globally. One of the things that has really fascinated me is how often they find themselves dealing with injuries, and how many of them have strategies to cope with a sudden injury. I decided to do some in depth research on the best ways to work through injuries mentally and hope to find some common threads to share with you here.

So what is the best way to regain confidence in your athletic abilities and recover mentally after a sports injury? One of the most effective ways is the zoom out method, which involves seeing yourself and your sport as a journey rather than a destination. As you accept the injury as part of your personal journey, you can get your head back into the game.

But what if you fear that this particular injury is going to take you out of the game completely?

I looked at a couple of case studies of individuals who were literally headed to the Olympics and due to an injury were not able to compete.

In both cases, fear was high on the spectrum and acceptance low. This is where you will want to go to work. Reversing these two opposing emotions is going to be imperative to regrouping, refocusing and giving yourself the opportunity to see what your future is going to look like.

Most get stuck here, and it is super easy to get stuck here. Their fear is simply so large that they lose hope, enthusiasm and self-respect around the sport they love.

My husband had a conversation with Devin Hester, who played for the Seattle Seahawks before he retired in 2017. He asked Devin what it took to win.

I put all my eggs in the football basket. I wanted it.

Devin Hester, retired NFL player (paraphrased)

Where am I going with this? I think if you are here most likely you are a competitive athlete or you are doing research to help a competitive athlete.

With this level of competitiveness, it is natural for an athlete and you to have all of there proverbial eggs in one basket, and individuals who are single-minded haven’t left themselves many (or any) contingency plans.

While the single-minded approach to life helps you on the competitive floor, when you are suddenly dealing with an injury, you can feel like you just lost your lifeline.

When your intentions are thwarted at this level, you need to have a plan.

How do athletes deal with injuries and how can you?

As I did research on huge-name athletes, they had one of two things in common. Either they had a team of people to help or plan for injuries (and they have contingency plans should an injury occur; often outlined in a contract) or as individuals they have a personal plan of how to recover from an injury.

If you are an amateur athlete, chances are, you don’t have a team of people making sure that your mental recovery is going well.

Further, losing access to the thing you are passionate about can leave you feeling pretty isolated.

What are the psychological effects of sports injuries that you can expect to deal with?

  • Isolation
  • Loneliness
  • Stress
  • Depression
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Sense of letting down your team / coach and others.

How are you going to deal with your injuries mentally?

You need to have a plan for this. In Graham Bensinger’s interview with Laird Hamilton (available on YouTube), the big wave surfer talked about how injuries were simply a part of his sport… and a part of his life.

In interview, he talked about getting punctured in the face by the tip of a large surfboard. It was behind his jaw line, so it was the first time he couldn’t hold his breath. He still managed to catch another wave and ride to shore.

When Laird was asked what kinds of injuries he had sustained, this is what he listed off:

  • Broken metatarsals (foot bones)
  • Broken Arch
  • Broken Ankles (7 or 8 times)
  • ACLs
  • Cuts resulting in over one thousand stitches to that point
  • Broken Collar Bone
  • Separated Ribs
  • Broken Hand
  • Broken Fingers
  • AC separation Shoulder Injuries
  • Slipped Disks and Vertebrae Injuries
  • Hip Replacement

Injury is just a part of the sport. I have a whole strategy on how to deal with getting injured.

Laird Hamilton (paraphrased from an interview with Graham Bensinger (YouTube)

A great place to start is to zoom the focus out and consider that your sport doesn’t just involve training and game day. Your sport extends further than that. It includes injury, rehabilitation/ injury recovery, and resuming athletic activities.

Don’t get me wrong, we all “want” an injury sports career, but let’s be realistic. When you look at the big names in your sport, have they ever been injured?

Part of being a champion is going through tough times. If you get the trophy fast, you never get to learn what being a champion really is.

Oksana Grishina (Netflix documentary interview Generation Iron 3 2018)

In the documentary on Usain Bolt who is considered the World’s Fastest Man, who has shattered the 100m and 200m records on the Olympic track, he talks quite a bit about the injuries he has sustained, which have prevented him from competing.

Ronnie Coleman, Mr Olympia suffered such severe back injuries from an 800 pound squat that he can no longer walk without the aid of crutches.

If you are dealing with an injury, look at it as a natural step in your progression. You will be stronger for it. Like it or not, this is part of your journey.

Accepting it will go a long way for your psyche.

What you resist not only persists, it will grow in size.

Carl Jung

Motivation for Injured Athletes

When it comes to motivation for those that are injured and currently feel stuck, I like to turn to Darrin Gwynn who started the Darrin Gwynn Foundation.

When Darrin was severely injured resulting in his paralysis, he kept his team together for several years. He now knew what it was like to spend his life in a wheelchair and understood the issues that people in wheelchairs faced.

He set out on a new mission, a “new race.” He wanted to provide expensive wheel chairs to those who couldn’t afford it on their own.

The first year they successfully donated two. Now his organization has been able to donate 50 wheelchairs per year. These are expensive wheelchairs running around $25,000 each.

This is no easy feat by any stretch.

My point is: Do you see what Darrin did? He channeled his inner competitive athlete to a new goal.

You can’t forget that you aren’t “just” gifted at your chosen sport. What makes you special isn’t your leg muscles as much as it is what is between your ears.

You have a special mind… an athlete’s mind.

If you are taken out of the game forever, it’s time to find that new purpose and passion and set your “very special” mind to go after it.

What if you don’t know what you want to do after an injury has permanently taken you out of your sport

It’s natural to feel out of sorts when you lose access to your dream / passion, and you are most likely wrestling with the idea whether a come-back is even possible.

I’d say that is the most important question to answer. Is there any chance you can make it back. As an athlete, mentioned above, you have a special mind that is able to take on inconceivable odds.

You are going to need to make a clear choice. Half-served dreams will only lead to further disappointment.

So what is it going to be? If you the cards you were dealt mean that you are “out” forever, mourn it, accept it and move on before it destroys the very muscle you are going to need to go after your next goal… your mind.

To much defeat can take a toll on your mind to the point that you lose the gifting that you possessed.

I’m not talking about being depressed. I’m talking about transforming your thoughts into nothing but negativity and allowing the seeds of doubt, fear and uncertainty to yield a large harvest of “my life sucks.”

Years ago, I heard the story of a friend of a friend who was a classic volleyball player and gifted athlete. She had a herniated disk in her neck and the operation to correct it left her paralyzed.

She was devastated. When my friend saw her again years later in a wheelchair, he asked her how she made it through.

It turns out. My mind just needed some new goals to keep it busy. I am constantly improving on things I can only do with my mind. It’s enough. I have found new passions, and my life is just as rich as it ever has been even without athletics.

Athlete who was paralyzed from the neck down (fascinating story; told third party through a friend)

What sports psychology can tell us about the fear of injury

The fear of an injury can be worse than the injury itself. Once a body part has been injured, let you down, or caused you not to perform at the pre-injury level for some time, it messes with your head.

A friend of mine who deals with bouts of anxiety told me that his biggest fear is dealing with anxiety.

The vicious cycle can cause you to lose your nerve wondering when you need a sharp edge on the competition the most.

You may even wonder if your bests days are behind you.

In one of my articles, I talk about needing the ELF principle of taking charge of your thoughts. It goes like this: Empirical data (separate fact from fiction), Logical (is it logical?), Functional (does it protect you?).

The first distinction is really important. You need to know whether you are making stuff up, if the thought is simply situational or whether the thought causing you to be afraid of injury is a real possibility.

If you determine it is more rooted in fiction and fear, it’s a good idea to tell yourself that your brain is making this up to keep you safe, but it’s all good.

Let the thought come and go like a wave in the ocean. Remember, you don’t actively create your thoughts and just because you had a thought doesn’t mean anything.

It’s not really the thought, but what we tell ourselves the thought means that becomes the issue.

Once you have concluded whether your thought is rooted in fact or fiction, you can start looking at how logical it is. If you have completely recovered from an injury, while it may be understandable, it isn’t logical. Time to acknowledge the thoughts.

Thank your brain for trying to keep you safe and move on.

Finally, understanding that usually we deal with two types of fears can be helpful here. One fear is designed to keep us safe, the other is cloaked at such but is really unfounded.

The best way to look at this is to consider these two examples:

Fear of a hot stove and fear of public speaking.

While both are rooted in self-preservation, one fear is realistic and protects you from bodily harm, while the other protects you “socially.” It protects your ego and you from experiencing embarrassment.

The funny thing is that if you surveyed people, many would most likely rather tough a hot stove than suffer the embarrassment of failing in front of a room

For an athlete, you are used to taking on the challenge of being embarrassed publicly. Any time you step on the competition floor, you are “exposed.” Just consider that your fear of injury is as founded as your fear and exposed nerves when you compete publicly.

It’s just part of the process and part of the game.

When to return to your sport after injury

This is a tricky subject because if you return to soon, you run the risk of re-injury or making an improperly healed injury worse. At the same time, sitting on the sidelines too long can cause you to feel like you are losing your edge.

What makes this complicated is that there are also social dynamics at play that we seldom discuss openly.

Things like:

  • Team expectations
  • Coach expectations
  • Contractual obligations
  • Fans / news and media
  • Family and friends
  • Your own expectations

What I have found is that doctors can often underestimate the recovery process. There is often a big difference between the way you felt pre-injury and the way you will feel during the rehabilitation process and in your sport once you get back to it.

Performing athletically with pain vs. pain-free is radically wide spectrum.

I’ve heard some people talk about good pain and bad pain, but I think that this is where your knowing your own body is essential.

No one can tell you what level of pain and how the pain shows up and what body sensations it causes you to feel is acceptable but yourself.

Test, test, test and go easy.

Most athletes regret trying to get back into it too soon rather than waiting too long. Consider giving yourself a longer break rather than curtailing it and risking more injuries.

Related Questions:

How do concussions affect mental health?

Concussions are a mild TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). When you are violently jolted, the brain hits the inside of the skull.

I considered explaining this in medical terms, but I’m going to explain it in layman’s terms.

Imagine that your brain is a bunch of batteries that are wired together. When all the batteries are jarred, the wires can come lose. Depending on how violent the trauma is, the batteries can break as well, spilling out acid onto other wires and batteries.

This causes corrosion and problems that aren’t easily fixed.

Likewise a concussion can bring down areas of your brains network. The signs of a concussion can include the following:

  • Headaches
  • Temporary unconsciousness
  • Blurred vision
  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Slowed physical response
  • Memory loss
  • Depression

Common concussions for kids are often caused in football, soccer, and bicycling.

If you or a loved one experiences a concussion or you suspect one, you will want to have it looked at by a physician immediately.

What’s the most dangerous sport?

I tried to narrow this down, but the problem I ran into is that most any sport that is worth watching becomes the most dangerous sport in the world when competition is added to it.

When I did my research, all of the expected culprits were to be found. I’ll make a list in a second, but literally any sport when pushed to the extreme gets highly dangerous.

Consider snowboarding. Dangerous in its own right, but when you add the mega ramps and the flips it takes on a whole new level of danger. Even pro-scootering is filled with risk at higher levels.

So what are the most dangerous sports in the world? Here is a short list and by no means is it complete:

  • Base jumping
  • Sky diving
  • Paragliding
  • Bull riding and Bull taming (yeah I didn’t know this was a sport either)
  • Horse riding
  • Gymnastics
  • Parkour
  • Football
  • Boxing
  • MMA
  • Luge
  • Skiing Snowboarding
  • Climbing
  • Cycling
  • Scuba Diving
  • Kite Boarding / Wake Boarding
  • Slalom Skiing
  • Racing (Car, Motorcycles, Snow Mobiles, etc.)
  • Ice Skating
  • and many more I’m leaving out.

Which sports have the highest amount of injuries?

Sorry to tell you this, but when I did the research on this, it was clear that the most popular sports had the most injuries.

It clearly is all about the numbers and the stats showed that wide spread sports like football and basketball had the most injuries.

Most people trying to figure out which sports have the highest injuries are in fact looking to either see how bad their sport is or whether their child should start doing the sport.

What I can tell you is that as a result of my research, there clearly is no safe sport and injuries happen everywhere.

I know this doesn’t exactly answer your question, but it is a good start in understanding that everything in life has risks and you can’t really choose the right thing versus the wrong thing here.

Kat Clukey

I am so glad you are here, and have chosen to spend your time reading my blog. For the past 4 plus years, I have been on an intense mission to read books, go to seminars, and generally turn myself inside out to find out why some people seem to feel good in their own skin while I've struggled with self-worth and low self-esteem most of my adult life. I hope you find insights that help you on your journey!

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