Allow me to open with a scene from the 1993 movie The Program.
Coach Winters (played by James Caan): Jefferson, are you injured or are you hurt?
Darnell Jefferson (played by Omar Epps): What's that mean?
Winters: Well, if you're hurt you can still play; if you're injured, you can't. So, are you hurt or are you injured?
Jefferson: I think I'm just hurt.
Winters: That's good, get up.
The above scene plays out after Jefferson endures a violent collision on the football practice field. It was a welcome-to-college moment for the highlytouted running back. But since life is not a movie, odds are that if you're an athlete, you will eventually encounter something you cannot shake off. You won't be hurt. You will be injured. The longer you play your game, the more likely it is to happen. No matter how much preparation is done to keep players healthy, sometimes bad luck runs its course and players go down. Chances are, you will miss practice(s) or game(s) due to your injury. The question is, what do you do next?
Pouting or feeling sorry for yourself is natural, but we cannot allow ourselves to fall victim to this. Yes, being injured sucks. In fact, researchers have found that injured athletes have significantly higher rates of anger, anxiety, low self-esteem and clinical depression than their healthy counterparts. To help combat these issues, you need to bring a competitive mindset to your own recovery. Even though you might not be able to play for a while, you have to take the same qualities that make you a great athlete and apply them to your rehab.
With that in mind, here are three tips that can help an athlete handle an injury in the most productive way possible.
1. Own Your Recovery
With most injuries, there is some type of pre-hab/rehab/physical therapy/corrective exercise implementation. Attack this process like it was the NFL Combine. Sure, picking up marbles with your toes may seem tedious compared to maxing out on Barbell Back Squats. But, accept that injuries have limitations. Apply your mentality from the field to the rehab and ask yourself: what have I done today to get better than I was yesterday?
Show up for your rehab with a positive attitude. Set short-term and long-term goals with clear expectations about what it takes to get back on the field. If I can bend my knee without pain, then I can play. But, be honest about it. Telling the medical staff what they want to hear, just to get yourself back on the field, is a recipe for disaster.
You also need to see the injury as a chance to re-build yourself better than ever. Odds are, you had weaknesses in your game before you were injured. Now that you have to start back from square one, it's the perfect chance to address those little issues.
"When you tear your ACL, you kind of have to reteach the whole leg how to work," All-Pro cornerback Chris Harris once told STACK. "I kind of re-taught myself how to run, how to fix my mechanics and the fundamentals of running. Little things like that. Now I feel faster and quicker. [I worked] on having fast feet, good strides, drive—anything I could to get faster."
2. Be a Cheerleader
I know, you're an athlete, not a cheerleader. But the key word to remember here is leader. The game continues even though you're injured. Your teammates are still grinding, fighting and bleeding through their season. Support them by coming to practice, sitting in on meetings, being attentive and bringing great energy to every team activity. Coach up whoever took over your position, and do your part to make sure everyone is prepared.
Being injured can develop or reinforce leadership skills. If your teammates see you bring effort/energy on a daily basis even when you aren't playing, it will elevate their overall level of play and confirm you as a true leader in their eyes. There's a reason that "Win One or the Gipper" is such a famous speech. If you're too young, Google it.
3. Complete Mental Reps
We've already established that injuries have physical limitations. If you've got a broken collarbone, you can't play football. But, you can still go to meetings. You can still go to practice. You can still exercise your brain by knowing exactly what your job is on every single play, and then imagining yourself performing it.
Mental reps are as good as physical reps. Find a coach who can tell you the play call during each rep of practice. Visualize yourself in your usual position. Watch what happens and mentally dictate how you'd react at game speed. Mentally recreate game scenarios and prepare for all possible outcomes. If they do this, then I will do that. Use this time to improve your mental game!
Once you're cleared for certain types of physical activity, you can strive to make it mimic what you'll face during a game. Football plays are generally 6-8 seconds of all-out effort followed by 20-30 seconds of rest. Performing high-intensity interval training on a stationary bike can help mimic this demand! The sharper you stay throughout the process, the better you'll be when you're finally back to full strength.
Photo Credit: Serega/iStock
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