Many athletes depend on their sport or physical activity to keep them sane or to relieve stress from their daily lives. I personally know that if you’re willing to devote so much of your own personal time towards this activity, that it must be very important and close to who you are as a person. I also know that as an athlete there is always a constant fear of being taken out of the game for good. No matter how careful you are, you can always run into an obstacle that is hard to overcome. These obstacles can be social, academic, or health related. For a lot of athletes the obstacle is an injury of a ligament on the body that is crucial to playing their sport. When you lose the ability to do what you love, it’s hard to look on the bright side of the situation and look towards the future when you are reunited with your love. The reasoning behind the struggle to be positive is that there may be a very tough road ahead to get back to where you were prior to the injury. A lot of serious injuries can take months to heal or recover from, and that’s not just physically either, it’s a mental recovery too. Athletes losing their ability to do a physical activity is like losing a person close to their heart, they must grieve the loss.
When an athlete first hears that they can no longer participate in their activity, it’s like getting hit by a train: you lose your breath and can only think of those seconds before you got hurt, wishing you could go back and move an inch to the left so it would have never happened. The moment before you hear what you broke, tore, or hyperextended, you only think about minor injuries it “could” be so you won’t be out of the game for that long. This is the denial stage. When the doctor or orthopedic gives you the news the first thought that comes to mind is “They must be wrong, there’s no way.” You may even choose to block out the words that are being spoken to you, because you’re trying to carry yourself through the first wave of pain.
With any injury there is bound to be certain limitations to what you can do physically that you wouldn’t think would be difficult until you’re faced with the task. Getting out of bed and getting dressed, which I know is mentally hard to do especially for students, is even harder now that you have lost either complete or partial use of a limb. Not being able to do things that were once so easy causes anger and resentment towards your injury, and anger is the second step of grieve. Even though it may not be raging anger, even being annoyed of the limitations you have can count towards this second stage.
Whether the recovery for your injury is a couple of weeks or a couple of months, an athlete will always want to speed up the recovery process, even though they could possibly be making it worse. For example a person with an ACL injury (very common in soccer, basketball and football players) has to work on a timeline to have movement and strength in their legs, and some athletes may push their limits and start to do things too early because they believe trying won’t cause too much harm. This is a way of bargaining: you’re putting your injury at risk because the need to be back on the field or court sooner is more painful than the actual injury.
This is worst stage of grief an athlete will endure during their grieving process. A lot of athletes experience depression when they begin to believe their injury will never actually fully heal, will cause them difficulty when playing for the rest of their athletic careers, or now have a great amount of time that was devoted to the activity that they’re not sure what to do with anymore. To any athlete, there is nothing good about not being able to put 110% into their physical activity or sport after they have been away from it for so long. There may be a feeling of hopelessness when thinking about when they can return to their activity and the skills they may have lost during recovery, but a very old (and very true!) piece of advice should be given to the athlete at this point in their grief: practice makes perfect. Even if you have lost some skills for your activity, you can always regain them by practicing and putting a lot of effort into working towards multiple small goals that may even lead to you improving some skills.
Finally the last stage and the best one for the psych of an athlete. This can happen at various stages in an injury, either when the athlete starts rehabilitation, or when they are close to being back in the game. This is the best stage because you know you’re close to being able to go back to doing what you love as much as you please again. There’s a very small amount of hill to climb up before you get to the top and have an easy ride down to the bottom.
When you or another athlete are dealing with the stages of grief from an injury, the most important thing to keep in mind is positive vibes. Without them, you may get stuck in a sense of feeling lost or get stuck in one of the unfavorable stages of grief. Always look for the positives in the situation. You can’t write because you broke your hand? Now you don’t have to get hand cramps writing notes! You have to use crutches or a wheelchair to move around? People are now obligated to be nice and help you out without you even having to ask! Even though some people may not see those as positives, I’m sure you can find one in your injury, even if it means listing all the negatives first. Always stay positive because you always fight to win against the opposing team, so you’ll win against your injury too.