Mental health plays a vital role at the time of an athlete’s healing process. Precisely why our sports medicine experts involve psychological healing throughout an athlete’s recovery, particularly when it’s time for an athlete to return to their sport.

Incorporating psychology in sports injury recovery
Let’s say you tear your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Probably, you know it’s a season-ending injury, though not usually a career-ending one. It’s serious. It will need surgery and several months to heal.

But what precisely does it mean? What does the ACL do, why is it necessary, and why can’t you just neglect it and get back on the field?

Having a good knowledge of your sports injury no matter what type of injury you have passed through, it’s crucial to understand your injury so you can have a great recovery.

“Visualization means comprehending exactly what is going on with your injury,” says certified athletic trainer Jeff Sirovatka.

“For instance, if you injure your knee, you need to understand the anatomy of the knee, why it’s structured the way it is, why it got hurt and how it functions in performance. Then you can comprehend why we’re doing the exercises we’re doing in physical therapy.”

Breaking your injury down in understandable way is crucial, says Sirovatka, because injuries can often take a psychological toll.

The relevance of goal setting in rehabilitation
Rehab from a serious injury — whether it’s a bad sprain, a ligament tear or a broken bone — takes hard, tedious, sometimes painful work. It requires a lot of patience.

To maintain that kind of attitude, our athletic trainers suggests using SMART goals. SMART goals are goals that are:

“I had a patient who sustained a really bad sprain on a Thursday and said, ‘I’ve got to be able to play in the finals on Saturday,'” says Sirovatka. “Well, that’s fairly specific, but is it realistic? Not really. It’s attainable, but not in that time-frame.”

During rehab, Sirovatka works with athletes to set incremental goals that meet the SMART criteria. Visualizing the process — comprehending how today’s mobility exercises lead to walking and how tomorrow’s strength exercises lead to running and jumping — can really make those goals make more sense.

In the end, says Sirovatka, “Setting SMART goals helps athletes get back to playing more efficiently, and it gets them in a better headspace, so they can perform better when they do.”

The final step of sports injury recovery
When an athlete sustains a sports injury on the field, the last step to recovery is sometimes not a physical one, says our sports medicine physical therapist Mimi Renaudin. Often, it’s mental.

“More than just the limb gets injured,” says Renaudin. “The athlete’s trust and confidence in that limb is injured, too.”

That’s an issue, says Renaudin, because when athletes fear re-injuring a limb they don’t trust, they’ll naturally put more strain on the non-injured limb. When that happens, ironically, both limbs are at increased risk of injury in sports.

The relevance of performing symmetrically in athletics
At Children’s Colorado, physical therapists like Renaudin make sure athletes are performing symmetrically — meaning they depend on both limbs equally — before clearing them to return to the field. Often, athletes don’t even know they’re compensating.

“The physical therapy gym is a very artificial environment, and planned physical therapy exercises are simple to anticipate and cope with,” says Renaudin. “It’s the unplanned sports activities where you see that lack of trust come in.”

For instance, a soccer player might need to cut around an opponent, and might unconsciously plan to pivot using the favored leg. But if the opponent fakes and goes the other way, the athlete needs to make a snap decision. In a situation like that, unhesitating trust in the limb maximizes performance and avoids another sports injury.

Sports physical therapy aids athletes to get mentally back in the game
Renaudin uses a number of rehabilitation techniques to assist athletes find and correct errors in their post-injury form. Sometimes she films them. Other times, she acts as an opponent.

“If they need to cut around someone, then there’s an actual physical body in front of them, instead of just an orange cone,” says Renaudin. “Not that I’m going to block or do anything crazy.”

It’s just one of the ways Renaudin and physical therapists like her assist athletes mentally get ready to get back in the game. A season-ending injury can exert a big emotional impact on an athlete.

When athletes need extra mental health support
For athletes fighting with the recovery process, Renaudin can refer to a mental health professional. Children’s Colorado’s Sports Medicine Center offers a full range of athlete injury-recovery services, from orthopedic surgery to evidence-based mental health treatment for overcoming signs of anxiety and depression.

“Some kids get hurt and their world is just totaly destroyed,” explains Renaudin. “That’s totally normal. Most times they just need that to hear the motivation to get on board with rehab so they can get back on the field.”

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