The Mental Side of Injury: How to Adapt and Overcome
Often when I’m talking with people, I mention the activities and training I engage in. When I ask if they train or play sports, their standard answer is, “Well, no. I used to, but I got injured. If you had an injury like me you wouldn’t be doing all that stuff.”
Actually, I’ve had a lot of injuries over the years. All except for one came from playing sports. It’s a fact: sports are a blast, but they will injure you eventually. Sporting activities take place in an uncontrolled environment, often with other players. We tend to reach past our limits when playing sports. Injuries are bound to happen.
Injuries Are Frustrating
I understand injuries are frustrating. They can be career-ending, life-changing, and life-threatening. But you have to develop a certain mentality when it comes to injuries. This mindset is what has made my experience different from many other people I know. I will not let an injury keep me down. I will not use it as an excuse to stop training.
Injury can be like a mental bomb going off in your head. So you need to get your head on straight to deal with it. Here are some strategies to work through the mental side of injury.
Stop and Evaluate the Injury
First and foremost, if you get injured in some activity or while training, stop and evaluate the situation. Too many people push on in their sport and turn a not-so-bad injury into something much worse. Don’t be an idiot-hero.
So, stop. Evaluate the injury. Does it need immediate medical attention? Well, go get it. Or do you just need to go home and treat it with ice or heat or massage and anti-inflammatories? Once you know the extent of the injury you can formulate a plan to get better.
"An injury can be a permanent setback or a gift. It’s all in how you look at it and how you respond. It’s your choice. Choose wisely."
Sometimes you can “train around the dragon,” so to speak. In other words, you may be able to train areas around the injury and help speed the healing process and also maintain physical strength and mobility. For example, I remember Steve Cotter mentioned he improved his pistols (one leg squats) when he injured his arm or hand. When others in his training class were doing push ups, for instance, he did pistols. So rather than stop training altogether, he did what he could and exercised other areas of his body. This can also help you stay in the game mentally and not get too depressed about your injury.
The True Goal of Physical Therapy
What if you need to go to a physical therapist? Don’t be an idiot. Just go get the PT done. Often people who need physical therapy sabotage themselves. They will do one or both of two things:
- First, as soon as they start feeling better, they will quit going to the PT and not finish their therapy. This is just stupid. Finish every scheduled session of your PT until they clear you. It’s like a round of antibiotics. Finish the complete prescription.
- Second, the few who actually finish all of their PT sessions often stop caring for that body part after they are cleared. Once again, this is totally stupid.
PT sessions are not designed to get you back to full strength and mobility. If you used to squat 405 for 5 reps and then tweak your back playing soccer, the PT is not going to help you get back up to that 405 squat. They will help you overcome muscular imbalances and compensations you may have acquired while dealing with the injury. They will help you get back to a base level of strength so you can engage in normal activity. These normal activities are things like walking or bending and reaching.
So, while visiting the PT, be clear on what you want to achieve. Ask your PT if and when further training at home is merited and how to do it. A good PT will help you with this. The few PT’s I’ve visited were happy to give me suggestions for things I could incorporate after all my PT sessions were over. If your PT won’t help you with this, it’s the same solution as anybody else who does a poor job - fire them and find a better one.
Long Term Attention
When the entire PT is done, you must continue to strengthen that area and the surrounding areas to mitigate the chance of injury recurring. Thus, you will need to change your programming to incorporate specialized exercises for the injured body part or joint or area.
These can be used as a warm up or at the end of the training session. You can also sprinkle these movements between other exercises instead of just resting on a bench between sets. You might do them while watching TV or incorporate them in a morning recharge program. See what works best for you. Realize you will need to give specific attention to build and maintain strength, flexibility, and mobility in that area – probably for the rest of your life.
Use Alternate Exercises and Implements
Consider whether or not it might be helpful to use different exercises and/or implements than you did before. Maybe a back injury precludes you from ever doing ATG heavy back squats. So what do you do? Instead of forgoing squats altogether, perhaps you can combine kettlebell goblet squats, a favorite from Coach Dan John, and something like Bulgarian split squats (rear foot elevated split squats).
"See it as an opportunity to overcome a challenge, seek out new ways of training, improvise, adapt, and overcome. You might surprise yourself and others at what you can do."
Maybe you had a shoulder injury and can no longer press big weights overhead. Perhaps bench presses make your shoulder really ache. Don’t be an idiot and stubbornly refuse to drop those exercises because they never bothered you before. Maybe push ups, handstand push ups, or one-arm overhead presses will work. Get ups and windmills will help you re-establish shoulder stability and could be coupled with fly-type movements.
Gift or Setback?
Injury is not the end of the world. See it as an opportunity to overcome a challenge, seek out new ways of training, improvise, adapt, and overcome. You might surprise yourself and others at what you can do. You may even discover a hidden talent you may never have realized otherwise.
An injury can be a permanent setback or a gift. It’s all in how you look at it and how you respond. It’s your choice. Choose wisely.
More on dealing with injuries:
- 7 Reasons Your Injury Isn't Getting Any Better
- The Risk of Injury in Competition and How You Can Protect Yourself
- Starting Over Again: 6 Lessons Learned From Injury
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
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