Being benched in this game of life can be soul crushing, yet having to sit out when the rest of the world keeps on going is something we all experience in various arenas of our lives at some point in time. We get laid off from work, we didn’t make the cut, we couldn’t come up with the money, the test comes back positive, we got injured.
A lot of my training buddies have been sidelined (myself included) due to injury this season, and I’ve been so inspired by their resilience and positivity despite. It’s just a part of this sport, and life in general – struggling through obstacles creates character and perseverence. Flexibility in the midst of adversity leads to resilience, and half of the art of living is resilience. No matter how much falls on us, we must keep plowing ahead. But how?
For me, discovering I was injured and forced to stand on the sidelines for a while this season, it just knocked the breathe right out of me. I always have faith that God’s plan is better than my own, and He continues to surprise me at every turn, never letting me down – but when you can’t do the things you love, how do you cope? To address this issue, I reached out to Heather Isle, a Licensed Professional Counselor Intern who works with college and pro athletes, specializing in sports performance anxiety. A perfect brain to pick! Here are her thoughts:
“So you discover you’re injured. You can’t practice, train, or compete. You’re in pain – physically, emotionally, and mentally. You aren’t able to do what you enjoy and love, and you’re not at all where you want to be.
Athletes competing at all levels gain a sense of accomplishment, joy and mental balance from participating in their sport. An injury causes a disconnect between body and brain, which makes an athlete feel a little off—in all aspects of life. I know from personal experience that injuries can manifest fears and doubts which you normally may be able to hold at bay when you are healthy. The self-doubt creeps in, not to mention the anxiety, and you start to second guess everything—it’s like a bad dream that doesn’t end.
How do you recover from an injury that has kept you from training, competing and reaching your goals? How can you work through this massive obstacle and come out on the other side mentally stronger?
Here are a few things you can implement today they can help you with that crucial mental piece of sport even when you aren’t able to physically participate.
- Positive self-talk: Words hold great power, both to build up and to tear down. The words we tell ourselves internally have power over our experiences, confidence and performance. When you are injured, it’s hard to remain positive. Rehab is painful and the anxiety about not being able to do your sport builds each day that you are out. Hopelessness, heartbreak, and depression can make things seem insurmountable. In these moments, fight the temptation to bash yourself with negative thoughts. The negativity will come, but you have to combat it with positivity. Use encouraging language constantly. . . about when you get back to training and competing, about the efforts you are making now, about focusing on what you can do and not what you can’t. Say positive things about your body and how it is going to be able to recover from the injury. If you exercise positive self-talk while being injured you will continue to benefit from it once you are back in the game.
- Visualization: This is a powerful tool that can be used any time, any where. When you are injured and can’t practice or compete, visualization can put you back in the arena. Imagine all the details of the practice field or course, use your senses. In your mind’s eye, picture what you are wearing, the weather, who is there, where your competition is, how the course is set up—all the sights and sounds. Then imagine yourself performing the event or skill at the best of your ability. You can do this in first person or third, in real time or slowed down. This is the next best thing to actually doing the physical activity of your sport. When you imagine and visualize yourself performing, your brain sends signals to your muscles which creates tracks for muscle memory. Then when you’re healed and injury free, your body will remember and perform better if you have done this mental training exercise.
- Goal planning: There are two different types of goal planning – task goals and outcome goals. Outcome goals are the ones we typically think of when we think about goals. Examples are: I want to win this race, or I want to beat my time from last year. Outcome goals aren’t bad to have but it’s not all you want to focus on. Task goals are more specific. They are the little goals that make up – or lead to – the bigger outcome goals. They are tailored to each specific event and individual. The best example I can give of task and outcome goals working together is from my personal experience. I was an olympic trials competitive diver and my main event was the ten meter platform. I had task goals for each dive that I knew if I completed, I’d end up with a high scoring dive. For my inward three and a half, I knew I had to jump strong, throw narrow with my arms and kick out tight. These were my task goals. If I did these things I’d score 7s or higher. The score was my outcome goal. If all I did when I got up to the platform was tell myself, I need to get 7s or higher on this inward, it might happen but the chances would be less. Focusing solely on the outcome causes blind spots along the journey and often leaves you falling short of your goal. With injuries, having task goals for rehab, and pre-planning for getting back into racing/training can help you stay focused on what you can do and not what you can’t. Focusing on getting the big win when you can’t even walk can seem very overwhelming and practically impossible. But a goal of completing your rehab exercises for the day and mentally visualizing each skill five times gives you a sense of control and a feeling of accomplishment in an otherwise out-of-control, frustrating situation.
These are just a few of the things you can implement today to help keep your mind sharp and your confidence high. If you want to learn more about how to focus on the mental side of sport, there are people trained to help in this specific area. Feel free to contact myself or Lauren and we can help you find what you need.”
Thank you Heather for your insights! Even when we can’t do the things we love we can still press forward and become better. That’s the thing I told myself over and over. I can’t train, but that doesn’t mean I can’t improve. For me, it meant refining nutrition, studying race courses, cooking new recipes, reading mental training books…and before I could swim, bike, or run, I eased into yoga and core work, taking advantage of sharpening often-neglected areas of strength building. I love this quote and I’ll leave you with this for now – stay resilient, be flexible, persevere.
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” -Robert Jordan
Oh and please don’t tell people who are sidelined that they will come back stronger than before. I will slap someone!
Check out more on Heather here: We Fix Brains or ring her up at 214.357.4001. Email is great too: HeatherIsle@gmail.com – she is awesome and can really help athletes work through some of the mental roadblocks we often face.