Add this page to your favourites Print this page

Dealing with injuries: The psychological approach


Most top athletes have had to deal with injuries at some point in their career. However what often separates elite athletes from average athletes is the way they deal with these unfortunate set-backs.

Although the injured athlete is not performing during this period on the sidelines, there is still a lot of work that the athlete can do in order to improve their game and speed up the recovery process.

This article is designed to equip the injured athlete with a selection of key mental tools to help the athlete get back on track and playing at their best.

Goal Setting

Goals are at the cornerstone of any successful athlete’s mindset. One of the biggest predictors of success is direction. Without direction or something tangible to work towards you end up relying on chance to decide what happens to you in the competitive realm of professional sport.

During the rehabilitation process after an injury, goal setting can become an incredibly important tool to make sure that the athlete continues to focus on making progress.

One of the problems with having persistent and prolonged injuries is the feeling of helplessness that often accompanies such an injury. It can become a very frustrating experience for the athlete, when returning to full fitness becomes a waiting game. It is often this lack of control over the situation that can leave the individual feeling depressed and disheartened by the unfortunate circumstance.

Arguably goal setting programs should be integrated into all rehabilitation programs. By clearly charting the athlete’s progress, attention is directed towards marked and measurable improvements. As long as the goals are objective measures (clearly knowing when you have reached the goal) then one can continue to numerically chart the progress of the injured athlete.

Here is a list of crude measures that provide a rough example of how goals can be constructed during the rehabilitation process:

A noted increase in the time spent working in the gym over time

Goal: Spending an extra 20 minutes in the gym each week.

Effect: A measured increase in muscular strength over time

Goal: Adding 10kg to lifting exercises that work the injured body part

Effect: An increase in the number of repetitions on recovery exercises over time

Goal: An increase of 10 more repetitions on recovery exercises every week

Effect: An increase in the number of recovery exercises over time, with exercises becoming increasingly demanding

Goal: The addition of 1 new exercise every week

Effect: Increased performance over time

From these examples one can see the importance of setting goals that are specific and measurable. During injuries it is of no use for the athlete to set vague and unclear goals.

If the goal cannot be measured there is no real way of knowing when the goal has been reached.

To learn more about goal-setting follow this link.


Various studies have shown that visualisation is one of the most effective tools to use during an injury. Because the injured athlete cannot train physically they often turn to visualisation in order to rehearse and practice their sport.

Three applications of visualisation specifically tailored for the injured athlete have been outlined below.

Application 1: Emotional Rehearsal

The first application of visualisation is emotional rehearsal. During injuries emotional rehearsal can be used to generate internal states of positivity and general feelings of optimism.

In essence emotional rehearsal involves self indulging in experiences that make the athlete feel good. Here are a couple of sport related situations that can be rehearsed in order to create resourceful and positive states:

  • Reminiscing over past sport successes
  • Imagining an ideal future in sport (perhaps involving the athlete winning some of the highest accolades available).
  • Outlined below is the typical sequence of steps that can be taken in order to reminisce over past sporting achievements. Initially the athlete should try doing this for 10 minutes, looking to increase this duration over time.

  • Close your eyes.
  • Take a few deep breaths in order to become completely relaxed and comfortable.
  • Allow your mind to drift back to one of your best sporting performances.
  • Once you have located a time, begin internally recreating the experience.
  • Imagine that you are watching your performance on a giant widescreen TV
  • Pay attention to every visual detail of the experience, making sure that the image is rich in colour, and it is 3D.
  • If the image is still turn it into a movie.
  • If the image is distant bring it as close to you as possible, to point where everything on your imaginary screen is as clear as possible.
  • Notice the sounds that were occurring during your past success
  • Make sure that the sounds are as clear and as lifelike as possible.
  • Combine the sounds and moving images so it becomes no different to watching a film at the cinema.
  • Allow your internal sights and sounds to generate all of the good feelings that you felt at the time.
  • Indulge in these feelings.
  • Here are a couple of interventions that will help to increase the effectiveness of this intervention:

  • Play music while you use this visualisation technique
  • Use it just before you go to sleep (This is because your mind is highly receptive just before you fall asleep).
  • During an injury this application of visualisation will help keep the athlete feeling positive and optimistic. As I have stated in many of my other articles on this website one the biggest predictor of behaviour is state.

    Learning to generate positive internal states will always help to attract positive results

    Application 2: Physical Rehearsal

    The second application of visualisation for the injured athlete is physical rehearsal. During injuries physical rehearsal allows the mental practice of the physical techniques of the injured athlete’s sport.

    The great thing about the brain is that it does not distinguish the difference between reality and fantasy. Consequently one can take advantage of this by mentally rehearsing the physical actions of your sport, without having to move a single muscle.

    Steve Backley (Former British Olympic Javelin Gold medallist) was a prolific user of visualisation, and he attributes a big part of his success to the application of this tool.

    Unfortunately Backley was regularly plagued with reoccurring injuries during his illustrious career. During his times on the sidelines he would visualise himself throwing the javelin over and over again, to the point where he actually felt like he was performing in the heat of an international competition.

    Here is a typical approach used to apply the technique of physical rehearsal. Like the emotional rehearsal exercise, start off by doing this for 10 minutes, aiming to increase the length incrementally over time.

  • Close your eyes.
  • Get yourself feeling relaxed and comfortable by taking a series of deep breaths.
  • Imagine that you are sitting in front a large cinema screen and you are watching yourself perform.
  • Now drift into the image of yourself that you are watching, so that you are now seeing everything from your own eyes.
  • Notice the physical sensations of your sporting action, paying attention to how each of your technical actions physically feels.
  • Examine your body position, noticing how you carry your body when you are performing at your best.
  • Sharpen up all of your visual senses so that everything that you are seeing is clear vivid, and full of colour.
  • Now introduce all of the sounds that you would experience if you were actually performing.
  • Run your physical performance over and over again in your mind, pulling together all the sights, sounds and feelings of the physical actions of your sport.
  • When you have finished open your eyes
  • Like anything in sport, practice is important, and the more one practices this exercise the more effective it becomes.

    Application 3: Fast Healing

    The third application is used to speed up the healing process. Research has shown that the mind and body are intrinsically inter-linked, and because of this visualisation can be used to aid the healing process.

    Sounds a little far out, but there are reams of anecdotal case studies that support the claim that effective visualisation strategies can catalyse the healing process.

    The beauty of this specific visualisation technique is that you can be creative with the process. Here is one technique that I created myself. Start off by doing this for 10 minutes, and again look to increase this length overtime.

  • Close your eyes.
  • Get yourself relaxed and comfortable by taking a series of deep breaths.
  • Allow your focus internally drift towards the injured part of your body.
  • Once you are physically aware of this body part imagine a bright healing light moving across the body part.
  • Create an image of your body part becoming stronger and healthier as this healing light continues to shine on the injury.
  • Notice the positive internal feelings that this light is creating, and notice the better you feel the brighter the light becomes.
  • Take time to create an internal image of the healing light mending the wound.
  • After the 10 minute period open your eyes.
  • This exercise should be used regularly during an injury. Here are some good times to practice this technique:

  • Before you go to sleep.
  • When you wake up.
  • In the shower.
  • During rest periods throughout the day.
  • During sports massage and physiotherapy.
  • While you are eating (visualising the nutritional value of the food nourishing the wound).
  • Onto Part Two

    Our members have access to our full range of articles, and use of the online scrapbook feature, allowing them to store and annotate their favourite article tips and sections. You also get free access to our online forums, which are launching shortly. It is completely free to join.

    Click here to read part two of this article.

    Popular Sport Articles