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Psychological reactions to exercise and athletic injuries

Despite taking physical and psychological precautions, many people engaged in vigorous physical activity sustain injuries. Even in the best-staffed, best-equipped, and best-supervised programs, injury is inherently a risk. Therefore, it is important to understand psychological reactions to activity injuries. Sport psychology specialists and athletic trainers have identified varied psychological reactions to injuries. Some people view an injury as a disaster. Others may view their injury as a relief—a way to get a break from tedious practices, save face if they are not playing well, or even have an acceptable excuse for quitting. Although many different reactions can occur, some are more common than others. Sport and fitness professionals must observe these responses.

Psychological reactions to exercise and athletic injury

Athletes have additional psychological reactions to injury (Petitpas & Danish, 1995). Some of these other reactions may include the following:

  1. Identity loss. Some athletes who can no longer participate because of an injury have a loss of personal identity; that is, an important part of themselves is lost, seriously affecting self-concept. Research has found that athletes had higher levels of intrinsic motivation when coaches provided a supportive environment during the rehabilitation process, which, in turn, helped them maintain an important part of their self-identity as athletes (Horn, Brinza, & Massie, 2013).
  2. Fear and anxiety. When injured, many athletes have high levels of fear and anxiety. They worry about whether they will recover, whether reinjury will occur, and whether someone will replace them permanently in the lineup. Because the athlete cannot practice and compete, there’s plenty of time for worry.
  3. Lack of confidence. Given the inability to practice and compete and their deteriorated physical status, athletes may lose confidence after an injury. Lowered confidence can result in decreased motivation, inferior performance, or even additional injury if the athlete overcompensates.
  4. Performance decrements. Because of lowered confidence and missed practice time, athletes may have postinjury declines in performance. Many athletes have difficulty lowering their expectations after an injury and may expect to return to a preinjury level of performance.
  5. Group processes. Injury to an athlete can affect group processes in a team either negatively or positively. For example, an injured basketball player who can’t play for two months might disrupt the smooth flow and teamwork that was developed through working together with the other four players. Conversely, sometimes when a high scorer gets injured, the other players rally around each other and contribute more effort, actually bringing the team closer together (see Benson, Eys, Surya, Dawson, & Schneider, 2013).

The loss of personal identity is especially significant to athletes who define themselves solely through sport. People who sustain a career- or activity-ending injury may require special, often long-term, psychological care.

Finally, while the majority of effects of being injured are negative, positive growth can result. For example, injured players might realize how much they really love their sport and become reenergized after being injured and returning to play, or by having to deal with the adversity of being injured, athletes might learn more about themselves and develop new coping strategies. In a study exploring this issue, Salim, Wadey, and Diss (2015) assessed perceived stress-related growth accompanying athletic injuries and found that athletes higher in hardiness better foster stress related growth by reframing their injury in more positive terms and better mobilizing social support from others. Those supporting injured athletes, then, should not only anticipate and support athletes struggling with the negative emotions that typically accompany injury, but also simultaneously look for appropriate times to identify possible stress-related growth and secondary gain opportunities.

Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Seventh EditionLearn more with Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, Seventh Edition.

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