Sidelined: Coping with an Athletic Injury


Healthy Living - May 24, 2016
JP Stowe, ATC
Injuries can be devastating to individuals who are consistently active and are training for an event or ongoing participation in a sport.  The physical repercussions are usually apparent, but the emotional and psychological stress is often less obvious. Athletes can quickly experience a feeling of social disconnect when they are injured, especially when they are accustomed to being part of a community of athletes. They experience a range of emotions that may seem extreme or unusual but are actually well within the normal range of responses.  Of course, there are many factors affecting the athlete’s injury experience, including severity of injury, extent of sport participation, and pre-injury personality, but it is not uncommon for people to experience some or all of the following:
  • Isolation and envy
  • Anxiety
  • Fear of Re-injury
  • Depression
  • Low Self-Esteem
  • Sense of Relief

Given these potential ramifications of injury, as well as other possible emotional experiences related to injury, there are some great ways to cope with being sidelined.

Below are some helpful tips:
Social Support: One theme that emerges over and over again in the research on the psychology of injury is the importance of social support during the rehabilitation phase.  This includes coaches and athletic trainers, but also refers to general social support systems. Social support and community connections absolutely benefit our physical and mental health and well-being. It is critical that injured athletes maintain a social support crew that will help them get through difficult times. 
Specific Strategies: A number of strategies have been shown to be helpful for athletes in the midst of injury. These include:
*Imagery: Visualizing one’s body healing and seeing oneself back on the playing field.
*Journaling: Writing down emotional content related to one’s injury.  Doing so with consistency and commitment can be a helpful way to manage the slew of emotions one experiences when injured. 
*Goal-Setting:  Much like with one’s regular training, setting and tracking goals when injured can be a beneficial strategy.  Long term and short term goals should be reasonable and realistic.
Acknowledging Feelings and Reality:  Avoiding the reality of one’s feelings and situation isn’t a great coping style in general.  This is especially the case when athletes are injured; ignoring feelings and trying to distract oneself from the reality are not beneficial when dealing with injuries.
Counseling: In many cases, working with a psychologist can be helpful when one is injured and the emotional ramifications are significant.  Support from coaches is also critical, but there are times when a coach is too close to the situation and outside assistance is warranted and most likely to help.
Find a Way to Stay Connected to the Sport and/or Find an Alternative Outlet If you can manage to become a spectator, cheerleader, or coach for teammates or other athletes during your down time, this is sometimes a good way to remain involved.  However, it may be too emotionally painful if you are seriously injured.  It is also important to engage in other activities and be social with non-athletes. 

  1. Appaneal, R.N., Perna, F.M., & Larkin, K.T. (2007).  Psychophysiological response to severe sport injury among competitive male athletes: A preliminary investigation.  Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology: 1:1, 68-88.
  2. Gallagher,  B.V., & Gardner, F.L. (2007). An examination of the relationship between early maladaptive schemas, coping, and emotional response to athletic injury.  Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 1:1, 47-67.
  3. Podlog, L. & Eklund, R.C. (2007). The psychosocial aspects of a return to sport following serious injury: A review of the literature from a self-determination perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 8:4, 535-566.
  4. Yang, J, Peek-Asa, Lowe, J/B. C., Heiden, E. Foster, D. (2010). Social patterns of collegiate athletes before and after injury.  Journal of Athletic Training, 45:4, 372-379.