I have been an athlete all my life, sprinting up and down soccer fields as a varsity soccer collegiate athlete, running in circles around a track through high school, and have most recently become a yogi as I practice finding my physical edge in conjunction with my mental edge. I have a laundry list of injuries underneath my belt—some as serious as multiple ACL tears and others a little less serious,* like ankle sprains and tendinitis. I am one of the most competitive athletes I know, and I love being able to participate. So when I’m trying my very best to be a good patient while I rest and rehab my injuries, I often come across this one thought: “I know my body hurts, but I’m also having all of these feelings that make me feel like I’m just not myself right now.” Chances are that if you’ve been injured or are currently working through an injury, this same thought might have or may currently be running through your mind too. Why?
Research suggests that a sports injury doesn’t only affect muscles, bones, and other tissues in your body. It affects your brain too! As athletes, just about all of us have some level of an athletic identity—the extent to which we identify ourselves based on our athletic endeavors and the extent to which we value ourselves based on athletic success. So when we are working through an injury that limits our ability to participate in our typical athletic routine or impacts our sports performance, our athletic identities are threatened. For me, this makes me feel less worthy, less competent, less confident, more of an outsider, and less like me. Sometimes these thoughts and feelings can become the forefront of an individual’s emotional state. When this happens, the individual may feel like they’ve lost their sense of self, essentially experiencing an identity crisis.
As a patient, I’ve been here—more than once. I know what it is like to not know who I am anymore because I feel like my injury has taken away my sport—the love of my life and the thing that makes me who I am. It is scary, it is saddening, it is overwhelming, and it is emotionally exhausting. Additionally, evolving research suggests that being in a state of emotional distress like this limits physical rehab success and increases the risk of re-injury when returning to sport. Even further, research suggests that emotional/psychological recovery can take longer than physical recovery, and only when both components are successfully recovered can an individual return to sport with the lowest risk for re-injury. Woah—this is scary on all accounts. However, take courage! There is good news!
As physical therapists, it is within our scope of practice to address BOTH components of injury. As mentioned before, we are experts in addressing the physical impairments and fortunately we are learning more and more each day about how to address the emotional component just as effectively. In my last year of physical therapy school, I directed my own literature review in an attempt to promote both a physical and mental approach to physical therapy services when working with injured athletes.
If you are interested in learning more information about the various factors that can impact athletic identity and emotional state when coping with a sports injury, be on the lookout for future blog posts at! Topics include but are not limited to the following:
- Athletic Identity
- Mental Toughness
- Social Support
- Coping Strategies
- Rehab Adherence
*Note: ankle sprains and tendinitis are still serious injuries that should be treated with as much attention as an ACL injury. Although these injuries might be small in comparison, they have the potential to affect other muscles and joints in the body, which can increase injury risk in other places.