Imagine dedicating countless hours, days, weeks, months and years to honing your athletic abilities and technique, only to have all that work crumble down like an avalanche. That’s what having an injury is like for most athletes.
Dr. Jonathan Fader, licensed performance psychologist, director of mental conditioning for the New York Football Giants and former team psychologist for the New York Mets, says, “It’s kind of like a breakup. You’re losing a relationship when you can’t compete. Athletes experience injuries like a loss of identity.”
For an average person, skipping a day or two from the gym won’t take a mental toll, but for athletes, it can be devastating — even akin to withdrawal. Dr Fader explains, “Exercise provides mental and health benefits. The adrenaline and endorphins produced from exercise make us happy, and for athletes that benefit is exponential.”
The Third Down: It’s All About Perspective
Marathoner Renee Metivier knows what that type of heartache is like. In 2011, Metivier didn’t know if she would ever run again. Chronic Achilles heel pain became so debilitating that the IAAF World Cross Country runner and All-American athlete considered quitting the sport altogether.
“I remember not being able to jump over a puddle,” Metivier recounts. “That’s when I knew things were really bad. I’m a marathon runner, and I couldn’t even get over a small pool of water.”
If you’ve experienced a devastating injury or setback, Dr. Fader says the best thing you can do is change your mindset.
“People who have a different perspective on their injury recover more quickly. We need to think of injury like the third down. In football, the success of a team is dependent on how well they do during the third down,” Dr. Fader says. In fact, a study shows that people who perceive themselves as recovering rapidly made more progress than those who didn’t.
But setting up an offensive and defensive line isn’t just reserved for the field. Here are a few ways to stay focused on your recovery and get your body and mind back in the game.
4 Mental Strategies to Get Through Any Setback
1. Embrace the new normal.
When people are faced with an injury, they often experience what Dr. Fader calls the birthday syndrome. “Think back to when you were a kid and it was two months before your birthday. You couldn’t think of anything else but your birthday for those two months,” Dr. Fader explains. “When you’re injured, you’re just focused on the day you’ll be able to come back.” But instead of imagining your comeback, Dr. Fader encourages athletes to put their energy into recovery and rest. It’s a common mistake for people to train more when they’re injured, but injuries work the opposite way, Dr. Fader says.
After getting the Achilles surgery that would save her running career, Metivier opened Recharge Sport, an athletic recovery lounge in Bend, Oregon, to help others heal from their injuries. Metivier knows first-hand how frustrating setbacks are, but she knew she had to just let things be.
“It’s hard when you have to start over again from scratch,” Metivier says. “I admit I drank a bottle of wine and cried. But I got up the next day and made a plan to be as healthy as soon as I can.”
2. Practice gratitude.
Recovering from an injury doesn’t necessarily mean getting back to your former strength or setting your sights on your next PR. Dr. Fader says those types of goals aren’t as effective. Instead, he advises athletes to start with practicing gratitude each day.
“I encourage athletes to concentrate on their relationships and friendships and to help out their teammates,” Dr. Fader says. “It is tremendously helpful for them to be in a supportive environment, where they can receive and give encouragement to others. It helps shorten the time of injury.”
For Metivier, it was important to appreciate what her body can do and embrace the progress she’s made. “I love to run, but when I couldn’t, I biked and rowed. I usually don’t enjoy doing them, so I would blast music and tried to make it fun. I would smile bigger every time I finished a workout,” Metivier says. She would also carve out more time to be with friends, including inviting them to her recovery sessions.
3. Focus on things you can control.
You might not be able to get a personal best or get back into your former fitness level, but you can control your ability to enjoy the race and appreciate the opportunity to compete again. Dr. Fader says to concentrate on the ability to pace yourself and the way your body will respond to fatigue when you’ve hit a wall.
It helps to ask, “How can I be religious about staying with the pace that I want? How can I be better about getting my body back in a healthy way?” he suggests. Mentally practicing your race or competition and refining your technique are also key, says Dr. Fader.
And sometimes it’s the smaller goals that can help you get back into fighting shape and condition your body into getting used to new challenges. Case in point: Instead of running a marathon as her comeback, Metivier plans to run the Newport 10K in New Jersey. “It’s a distance I know very well and a good test of where I’m at. A 5K is all about speed and a marathon forces distance. Newport is scenic, and I really want this race to be about being back and inspire community,” she says.
4. Set your sights — but not too high.
Dr. Fader says he often uses imagery as a method to help athletes envision their bodies healing to put them in a positive mind frame.
“With an Achilles tear, you can use imagery to show the swelling draining from the area and the tendon becoming stronger. Coupling this mental rehearsal with breathing techniques can help you look at injury as a challenge and not a threat,” Dr. Fader explains.
Metivier says she was able to overcome the devastation from her injuries by setting goals for the present and making the best out of her 10K race. “We all have to rebuild. I know I’m not as strong or as fast as I was, but I will be.”