The Psychology of Sports Injury and Rehabilitation

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Coach talking to players during game warm ups


Participating in sports teaches athletes important life skills like commitment, discipline, and time-management. Unfortunately, injuries are also part of competitive play. Injuries can range from minor scrapes or bruises to career-threatening ligament tears. When an athlete suffers a serious injury, they might experience a wide range of emotions. A player might respond with anger directed at themselves or others. Some athletes may feel sad over how the injury will impact their season. Other players might even experience denial. There are important keys to managing an athlete’s psychological mindset as they recover from an injury. Understanding this mindset is important for preparing an athlete for the challenging road ahead to recovery.

When Delivering Bad News, Wait for a Response

When athletes first suffer an injury, it is important to first make sure the athlete understands what their injury is. Injury information is often filled with complex medical terminology that can be difficult for a child or teenager to understand. When this is combined with an intense emotional state, the athlete may have difficulty paying attention. To make sure an athlete understands the injury, explain the injury first and wait for a response from the athlete before continuing. This ensures the athlete is paying attention. Allow the athlete time to digest the news and release any emotions that are bottled up.

It is important to support the athlete psychologically on their road to recovery. Remind them that the injury is not their fault and that a return to play is likely. If the athlete is struggling, try having them watch sports on TV to help motivate them further to work hard at their rehabilitation.

The Mind Often Recovers After the Body

As rehab progresses, it is common for an athlete to be physically ready for competition, but not psychologically ready. This is often due to a lack of confidence in the surgical repair. Many athletes become afraid that any stress on the repaired limb will only re-injure it. For example, athletes with an ACL injury are reluctant to make cuts on the field out of fear of tearing the ACL again. There are some important points to remember when traversing this gap in recovery.
Reassure the athlete that the surgeon took the utmost care when constructing the repair. Remind the athlete that he or she worked hard in rehab and the muscles around the injury are strong enough to withstand competitive play. It is also important to remind the player that any reluctance regarding the repair will actually increase their risk of injury because it can result in the athlete moving unnaturally.

Mental Visualization Can Help Ready an Athlete For Return to Play

When athletes are getting emotionally and psychologically ready to re-enter the competitive arena, practicing encouraging imagery is a powerful technique. It is used to remind athletes of what they need to do once they return to play. Using imagery, athletes can visualize themselves going through the rehab exercises in their mind. They can also picture themselves performing different drills, plays, techniques, and strategies to sharpen their skills before returning to play.

If athletes can adequately picture themselves going through important steps in their mind, they will grow their confidence during rehab and surgical repair. Positive visualization can help any athlete overcome the fears of re-injury.

Modifying Drills Can Keep Skills Sharp

Modifying sport-specific drills or techniques during rehab is another strategy for instilling confidence in an athlete after an injury. A surgical repair often limits an athlete physically as the repair is given weeks, or even months, to heal after the surgery. This can make it challenging for athletes to keep skills sharp for their respective sports. To help keep these skills, modify the drills in a way that the athlete can perform them, even when immobilized. For example, if a football player can’t run due to a knee injury, they can practice throwing from a seated or kneeling position. Basketball players can still shoot from their knees and baseball players can practice hitting with a soft-toss or even practice grips in their hand.

Giving athletes drills they can perform while recovering will make them more likely to push themselves and give them the confidence necessary to return to play.

All Athletes Should Set Goals During Recovery

Anyone working with an injured player should make sure to set goals. These include goals related to recovery, return to competition, and goals once competition play has resumed. Write these goals on a piece of paper or white board and place the goals in an area the athletes can see while in rehabilitation. Keep athletes from thinking in a negative manner by pushing them to reach the positive goals listed. Keeping these goals in mind will prevent athletes from focusing on the physical limitations related to their surgical repair.

Managing an athlete’s psychology after an injury and during rehab is key for a successful recovery. It is important to remember that although their injury may be healed, their athletic mindset may still be hurting. Build their confidence while guiding them on the path to a successful recovery and return to the field.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration Degree

Ohio University’s online MAA program is designed to teach professionals how to manage the many changes in interscholastic sports. The university launched the nation’s first academic program in sports administration in 1966 and continues to be a leader in sports business education.

Ohio University’s online MAA program is housed within the university’s College of Business, underscoring the university’s dedication to providing world-class sports business education.

The program works in collaboration with the National Intercollegiate Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) to prepare graduates for certification and is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA). For more information, contact an enrollment advisor at Ohio University.


Psych Central, “The 5 Stages of Grief & Loss”
Howard J. Luks, M.D., Orthopedic Surgeon, ” Recovery from ACL Surgery: The Psychological Component”
Strength Coach, “Comprehensive Training Program for Knee Rehab Continuation”