August/September 2021 - 12

Injury Rehabilitation
The Injured Athlete &
Returning to Competition
By JJ Weber, M.Ed.
Director of Team Weber Consulting
..n estimated two million high school athletes
..suffer sports injuries occur annually in the
..United States alone, according to the U.S. News
& World Report. And those are just the reported injuries.
Being an athlete is challenging. Being an injured athlete
can be formidable and utterly overwhelming. Physical
injuries have an immeasurable mental component. Injuries
throw an athlete's entire life into chaos. Understanding
the wide-reaching impact of injuries will help coaches,
support staff, and athletes navigate the challenges
associated with injuries.
The injury experience consists of three components:
mental and physical losses, rehab/ recovery, and return
to competition. Let's examine these components in
further detail.
The physical losses from injury are obvious. Most
athletes are passionate about training and competing.
Injury puts the athlete on the sidelines and away from the
activity that provides a sense of achievement.
In addition, the injury itself physically damages the
body ranging from temporary impairment to permanent
harm. As the severity of an injury increases, the emotional
and mental impact intensifies.
Mentally, injury profoundly affects an athlete's
sense of self. Ask an athlete to describe themselves
and they will do so using their sport, such as " I'm a
baseball player " or " I'm a field hockey player. " This is
referred to as the " athletic identity. " Athletic identity is
how an athlete defines, sees themselves or describes
Most athletes have specialized in their sport from an
early age and compete year-round. Athletes eat, drink,
and sleep their sport. Bedrooms are decorated with
trophies, awards, and sports posters. Everyday clothes
are almost exclusively sport or team-related. Family lives
and vacations are often scheduled around practices and
competitions. When injury rips away or alters an athlete's
identity, they are often left with emptiness, frustration,
anger, and, in some cases, depression.
Psychiatrist Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross set forth her model
on the five stages of grief in her book, On Death and
12 | Training & Conditioning | August/September 2021
Dying (1969). These five stages can easily be applied to
athletic injuries such as career-ending injuries, injuries
requiring surgery or long-term rehabs, and even less
severe injuries. The theory provides insight into the
injured athlete's experience.
The five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining,
depression, and acceptance.
Denial - When the injury occurs, the athlete often
underestimates the severity or doesn't believe the injury
will have a significant impact on sport participation.
Anger - In this stage, the athlete becomes agitated
and angry. Achieving their seasonal goals seems
impossible. It feels like everything they worked for
was a waste. Irritability and frustration intensify as the
length of rehab increases.
Bargaining - The athlete starts debating, " If I push
harder, I can get on the field quicker. " This puts the
athlete at risk of aggravating the injury.
Depression - In this stage, the athlete feels helpless
and hopeless. Worry and fear grow as the athlete
is uncertain about their future. The athlete feels
their situation is out of their control and dictated by
physicians, physical therapists, or coaches.
Acceptance - Working through the first four stages
leads the athlete to acceptance. The athlete realizes
nothing can change the past. This is where the emotional
and physical healing process begins. In this stage, the
athlete can put their full focus and effort into rehab and
When dealing with loss, the athlete should be reminded
that many things can be achieved again:
Feelings of pride
Joy of competition
* Sense of self
* Confidence
* Fitness level
* Physical strength
* Accomplishment
Connection with team
Also beneficial is helping the athlete see the eventual
gains from injury and recovery:
* Mental toughness
* Mental skills
* Coping mechanisms
* New methods of training

August/September 2021

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