Since I wrote about ACL tears and rehabilitation options, I have talked to several people who have recovered from ACL or other knee injuries but are now afraid to return to their sport or physical activity for fear of re-injuring their knee.
Before we can talk about how to get athletes back on the field, it’s important to understand and recognize what the athletes may be going through while they are injured. Athletes who are injured can experience a decreased sense of self-identification because the injury takes them away from their sport, teammates, coach and competition. The more severe the injury, the more likely it is that the athlete could experience withdrawal, isolation and even depression.
Parents, coaches, teammates, athletic trainers, doctors and physical therapists need to watch out for these signs and give counsel when necessary. Some athletes may need to seek professional help for depression and coping skills while they are injured.
Once an athlete is ready to take the field again, it’s normal to feel apprehensive and nervous. The brain sends signals to the body to protect itself. When you put yourself in a situation in which an injury has occurred, the body will do what it needs to in order to not get injured again.
When the brain sends these signals, it can be a physical, mental, and/or emotional response. For example, I worked with an athlete who was ready to return to the volleyball court after her ACL rehab was over. However, every time she walked on the court she would begin to shake, cry and feel sick to her stomach. Her body was responding to the fear even though she was 100 percent ready to come back to volleyball.
There are techniques sport psychology consultants use in order to help athletes return to their sport. For instance, mental imagery and relaxation training can help the athlete regain confidence, starting with their memories. These techniques also give the athlete tools they can use if fear, anxiety or pressure start to build up.
After you have mastered relaxation and imagery techniques, athletes can use a process called systematic desensitization in which the athlete begins to break down the fear of returning to their sport starting with what they fear the least. For instance, if a soccer player fears running next to someone while they dribble the ball, then they would start by just dribbling without anyone next to them. Slowly, they would have their partner move close and closer until they were able to dribble the ball with contact and not experience fear or anxiety.
For coaches, trainers and athletes, it’s important to remember that there is a physical and mental component to injury and rehabilitation. If you need help, seek it. If you need more time, take it. If you are ready to return, enjoy it!
About this column: Rachael Grant-Dixon, a sport psychology consultant and a mother of three, shares different perspectives on health, fitness and overall wellness. Rachael has a master’s degree from San Diego State University in sport and exercise psychology.