Another Perspective on Injuries
There are many articles out there on how to “cope” with injury. They make great points about the value of reaching out for help, doing the things you can do- like walking instead of running, focusing on improving other areas of your fitness, eating well, and sleeping regularly at least 8 hours a night. These are all tried and true tips, and a good beginning.
But here’s the thing.
The biggest challenge to being injured is the fact that you can no longer DO- you have to just BE! Many athletes (and the vast majority of the rest of the world) have been trained to rely solely on their bodies and utilize them to maximum strength. Our culture highly values accomplishment and “getting things done”. Years of this approach can often result in your identity being totally tied up with what you can do, accomplish, or reach for in terms of goals. All seems good. Until you are suddenly faced with an injury or illness that places you in the challenging place of having to still feel valuable and worthwhile even when you cannot perform. I have worked with many athletes in this position, and depression can often set in. Feelings of not being strong any more, being vulnerable, not feeling quite as independent are also factors. Unskilled coaches can add fuel to the fire with myths about lack of mental toughness being an issue! (Ugh. Another topic for a future blog.)
Performing musicians are another group who struggle with injuries. They go through a similar process of having to reduce participation in competitions and to remain hopeful and confident about recovering. To both groups, I always inform them about the grieving process, that it’s normal and healthy, and that it is incredibly validating to talk with others who have been through this. Finding/making a list of what you can do is good, but the more in-depth and long- term value comes when you are forced to see yourself as a whole person who can take ownership of your intrinsic value even when you can do very little. This is where working with a skilled and experienced mental performance coach can be literally life-changing. The kind of process you go through can alter not only the way you choose to deal with your injury, but your overall life as well.
I see injuries as your body’s way of offering you temporary respite, and an opportunity for tremendous personal growth. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences….
B. Mus (Performance) M.Ed Psych, Accredited CO-Active Coach
Fear. The very mention of the “f word” can result in a myriad of competing responses from coaches, athletes and parents. Learning what fear actually is- and how we can use it to our advantage- is what the next few blogs will be about.
Let’s begin with coaches. Fear is not something often talked about or acknowledged as a factor worth understanding in sports circles. If you are a coach who has not been in touch with your own early experiences of fear, nor learned how to apply a process for integrating those experiences, you will not be comfortable witnessing this emotion in your players. Typical responses from unaware coaches tend to be dismissive, controlling, or avoiding.
Working with teams over the last two decades, I have yet to see success in overcoming debilitating fear through dismissing, avoiding or trying to control an athlete. Common oversimplified responses tend to revolve around references to a lack of mental toughness. I have not heard a sound explanation from coaches of what exactly this term means, nor specifically how one can acquire it as an athlete. If you ask young athletes, their understanding, particularly in the case of males, is to ignore or swallow your emotions, and get on with winning. If only it were that simple!
In reality, fear, like any other emotion or feeling, is human- neither positive or negative. Evaluating fear as negative is like randomly deciding that the color red is bad, while blue is somehow good. A more analytical approach takes reflection, awareness, and the ability to put theory into practice. It takes time to do this. Most often coaches tend to rely on shouting more, benching athletes, or patiently trying to talk them out of their feelings. None of this works.
What does work is providing athletes with resources that can help them understand how fear works, and what experiences and/or genetic predispositions might be contributing to their current response to pressure, both on and off the court. Psychologists, doctors, counsellors, mental performance coaches and experienced mentors all come to mind. These helpful adults are usually available, at no cost to student- athletes, right on campus, yet few coaches seem to refer to them. It is in the best interests of the whole team to discover whatever can be helpful in the pursuit of performance excellence.
It's also important to begin the learning and self-awareness process early. Recent focus on fundamentals at each stage of the athlete’s physical development is a great start, so why not provide this on the psychological side as well? We want our athletes to accept that there are times when they may feel less prepared to do what’s required for success, and to teach them concrete ways to move through this without ignoring its potential to significantly interfere with their performance! Our hope is that by the time they decide to play at a higher level, they will have both awareness and solid tools for dealing with fear and anxiety.
Another common word for fear is stress, and the physiological response to a stressor is what needs to be recognized and understood. Instead of viewing the rush of adrenaline, the quicker breathing, the higher heartrate, and the urge to flee or fight as a problem- we need to see it as a gift that the species has had built in since time began. In fact, without this gut response to perceived threat, we would have been extinct by now! So when a coach is faced with a talented athlete who expresses verbally or through body language that s/he is feeling fearful, the more effective response is to acknowledge that reality and provide education about how to use it.
The mindful and self- aware coach (or associated staff) could explain that understanding your natural tendencies under pressure is a good thing, and that tools such as meditation, yoga breathing, positive self-talk, and visualization will all contribute to the ability to move through (versus avoid) fear. Just as you expect athletes to practice drills, shoot regularly, go to the weight room, and take care of their bodies, so should it be made clear that taking care of your mind is equally important. We have all watched the exciting results when two equally talented teams compete, and we witness the inner strength and capacity of the winning team to tap into their mental skills.
The opposite of fear is confidence. Coaches can model this for their teams when that confidence is based on knowing yourself, knowing your athletes, and integrating your many years of experience into a desire to lead the way to optimal physical and mental health in sport! If we can teach our kids to understand and effectively deal with the natural emotion of fear on the court, we are confident this skill will easily translate into life long after they finish sports!
There's a word I tend to use a lot when working with people, no matter what the setting is: it's ownership. Grasping firmly and with conviction who you are and what you want is essential in any forum, but with coaches and athletes it's an area often not clearly defined and articulated. In my book Mindful Team Making, I talk about this a lot, and its impact on your performance results. If you're a coach, discovering as much as you can about who your athletes are and what makes them tick will ensure you are mindful about how you inspire and motivate them. What is meaningful and motivating for one person may not have the same power over another. If you are an observer, as I am, there are a million different clues that lead you to a picture of your athlete that helps you choose your approach to him/her. Being selective like this requires much mental discipline and means that you cannot rely on just one tool to get the job done. But the Coach who is willing to add to the toolkit will see big payoff in results!
Same advice about ownership applies to athletes. What do you have to offer your team in your current situation? What is missing from the team, and how can you contribute to its success? This is not the time for false modesty, nor huge egos. It's a delicate balance between knowing your own added value, and being humble about the need for the rest of the team and the coaching staff. No-one can go it alone!
And finally, speaking of ownership, I would love it if readers of this blog started suggesting topics you'd like addressed in the coming blogs! Add your comments about this one below, and suggest what you'd like to hear about next! OWNERSHIP