Not only do injuries suck but they bring with them a whole truckload of mind games. From sadness to fear to lack of confidence, physical injuries can quickly become psychological injuries. It’s important to recognize and normalize that having an emotional reaction to injury is healthy. Loss, sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, and uncertainty are common initial reactions to injury. However, for some athletes after these initial feelings, fear begins to set in. Fear of performing to the same standard they did before. They wonder how long it will take to regain their fitness. They ask themselves if they’ll get re-injured. These fears can quickly erode an athlete’s confidence in their abilities. So, how do you regain confidence after injury?
Before we dive into how to regain confidence after injury, I think it is important to explore why fear develops. Fear is often the result of uncertainty, lack of control, and a threat to something important to us or a part of our identity. In injury all of these areas come online and with them comes a narrative that shapes our beliefs about our ability to return from injury. If that narrative is overwhelmingly negative and doubtful then our confidence will begin to be eroded. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt will be the underlying hum of our return to sport making us overly cautious and missing the belief that leads to breakthroughs.
While it is best to stop the negative thoughts from spiraling into fear that erodes confidence, it is hard to do when you are in the middle of injury. Thankfully, even if we do dip into the doubt narrative, confidence is a highly trainable skill. Here are a few ways that you can regain confidence in your ability. You may come back stronger than you were prior to injury!
The first step to regaining confidence is slowing down and developing awareness. Develop the awareness of the beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and actions that got you to the place you are at. Grab a pen and some paper and divide it into three columns:
- ACUTE (when first injured)
- ACTIVE RECOVERY (while resting/doing PT/unable to perform but understand timeframe and injury)
- RETURN TO SPORT.
Reflect on each of these stages and write down the beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that were occurring.
Challenge your Beliefs
Use the chart you created and begin to write out alternative, confident thoughts. Write these on a sticky note and place it on your mirror or car dash. Also, make a list of things you can do to build confidence. Examples could be signing up for a race, doing a small workout, or running an easy technical downhill. After you create your list, write a date next to it that you are going to do it.
Practice Curiosity and Exploration
It’s normal post-injury to find yourself afraid to do a workout. You may not be sure if your body can handle it. If you’ve been medically cleared then the only way to know for sure is to try. If you believe your body can’t handle it then most likely that is what will be manifested. This can show up as either phantom pain or negative self-talk. Both of these can make you quit. If you expect that you are going to perform worse or take a long time to regain your fitness, that is most likely what will occur. When we place expectations birthed out of fear, we limit our ability to come back stronger than before. I like athletes to replace expectations with curiosity and exploration. Taking each day as an opportunity to observe their physical and psychological states then adjusting things when necessary. You don’t have to be overly optimistic but try practicing grace and compassion with your return.
Injuries are common in sport. Anyone seeking to push their limits and reach their potential will eventually be sidelined with injury. During the injury it can be easy to neglect the impact the injury is having on you psychologically. In that moment negativity and doubt can creep in. It is not uncommon for athletes to lack confidence when returning to sport post-injury. With some self-reflection, reframing, and practicing curiosity athletes can recultivate their self-belief. This will help them regain confidence after an injury to return stronger than before.