When you’re training hard for an important competition and suddenly get injured, the big mistake many athletes make on their return to training is to focus on the wrong thing. You worry about extending your knee or pulling in your shoulder in case it happens again. By focusing on what you don’t want to happen, instead of what you should be doing you are inviting the very thing you don’t want. Here’s how:
Basically, you have three mindset responses in this case –
Cognitive (your thoughts):
- You worry about it happening again;
- You generalise and exaggerate the thoughts in your head until the very tiny possibility of getting injured again becomes a full blown ‘likelihood’ in your head;
- You convince yourself you’ll fall, or pop that knee or shoulder. And what happens when we focus our thoughts on something going wrong? On the negative? Remember the ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ exercise? – as soon as you try not to think of it there’s a great big pink elephant in your head! So you are focused entirely on what is wrong, instead of all those things you should be thinking about to execute a great performance.
Then there’s your emotional response:
- The main emotion is fear. But, here’s the thing, fears aren’t real. They are only thoughts and thoughts can be changed;
- A feeling of lack of progress – having to miss competitions when others are able to go because your fear of re-injury is holding you back from training and progressing even though you have been passed as fit to go back by the physio;
- Loss of confidence and self-belief as results start to fall. Sometimes leading an athlete to become so demotivated that they want to give up altogether;
And these two dictate your actions, or behaviours:
- Avoiding potential pain by using and tensing different muscles or parts of the body to ‘favour’ or protect the injured part, leading to overuse of other areas and potentially a new injury. It will also have a negative impact on your technique and result in a poor performance;
- No longer paying attention to the correct cues in your body (internal focus) for a good performance because you are focusing on avoiding use of the injured part instead;
- Training less because of a fear of getting injured again;
- Comparing yourself unfavourably with your peers who haven’t had to come back from an injury;
It’s really important that coaches take into account the impact that fear of injury can have on an athlete’s self-confidence and that coaches and parents help the athlete to stay motivated and get their positivity back. The Ice Cool Success Sheet is a brilliant tool for this – refocusing the athlete on what’s going well instead of what’s not working. Those of you with the Ice Cool Confidence Skater Planner will have noticed this exercise built into every week in the diary section where you note down the best thing about each day and then look back and choose the best thing about the week.
Goal setting is really important too. It helps to have small, positive goals to focus on – perhaps work on your arm placement or your breathing, or your head movements. If you already have goals (you certainly should have!) revisit and review them. Add in whatever mini-steps are needed to get back to full strength after injury. Goals are great for monitoring and measuring progress and when you can see things moving in a positive direction again it all helps the motivation and the self-confidence. Make sure these are positive goals – what you want, not what you don’t want – and that they are under your control and not dependent on anyone else.
Visualisation is another great tool for helping the healing process. Since the mind can’t tell the difference between something actually happening and just thinking about something happening it will send the same signals through your nerves to your muscles when you visualise yourself training as it would if you were actually training. And if you can visualise whatever needs to happen in your injured muscle or joint to make it better (ask the physios about the biology bit) that can help too, alongside whatever treatment you are already having.
Finally, to parents and coaches – your worries can make things worse! You can end up instilling fears in your athlete which may not have been there. Aim instead to leave your athlete with an overall sense that an injury is an opportunity. A chance to work on other areas of the sport while they allow the injury to heal for a stronger comeback. And make sure to give plenty of positive feedback. That goes for you too if you’re a skater and your friend has been off with an injury. Support and encouragement all round goes a long way to boosting confidence!