Workout Tips

The Psychology of Injury

Understanding how an injury affects you can help make recovery easier on yourself and everyone around you.


If you train hard for long enough, injuries happen. Muscles get strained, connective tissue tears, accidents leave you bruised or broken. In most cases, these unfortunate events are short-lived and we are usually back to pushing iron in a few weeks. But when we are not able to train at the level to which we are accustomed, other sinister ailments can become manifest. We become edgy and unpleasant around others. Our motivation in other areas takes a hit. Dietary discipline gives way to “eating feelings.” Tendons and ligaments are easy. Our spirit – not to mention our ego – sometimes takes longer to mend. And how we mentally and emotionally manage the stress caused by injury can directly affect our recovery time.

There are a few things to be cognizant of – things that go beyond training room protocols – while you’re sidelined. Matt Cuccaro, the Director of Mental Training at Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, walks us through what we can expect in the various stages of injury.


No one ever plans on getting hurt and that acute lack of control is what is most immediately unsettling for gym rats.

“Much the same as an athlete cannot choose his or her opponent or win-loss record, an athlete cannot control the time, place or severity of an injury,” says Cuccaro. “One of the most important mental factors in effectively overcoming injury comes in the form of acceptance. It is natural to have an emotional reaction to injury, yet helplessness, anger, and denial are not emotions that will assist progress or adherence to a rehabilitation program.”

Indeed, the first reaction is typically an emotional one. You feel a tweak in your upper back or neck, you hear a pop when you’re benching, you leave the gym with a growing ache in your shoulder joint – immeasurable is the frustration to follow. Still, Cuccaro says that the best medicine is to accept your situation and immediately get focused on recovery.

“Once an athlete accepts the presence of an injury, he or she tends to become more recovery-focused and action-oriented. How can I get better? Accepting something that may impede activity is remarkably difficult.”

The solution? Tap your inner competitor. Adopt recovery as the new norm, or the next training goal. Get passionate about that, rather than wallowing in the misfortune of the injury itself.

“Athletes who become more emotionally charged with embracing the challenge of recovery tend to adhere to medical advice and achieve better results in the end.”


When you’re injured, the pain isn’t the only reminder you have to contend with. Spending a great deal of your time with physicians and therapists, rather you’re your fellow gym-goers, becomes the new norm and it’s easy to, once again, become embittered at the process of recovery.

“Because many athletes are accustomed to being healthy and regularly high functioning, spending time with a medical team – which, to most athletes, is synonymous with dysfunction and poor health – may be uncomfortable,” Cuccaro says. “A doctor or physical therapist is often indication that a barrier to their goals has been formed. However, effective injury recovery revolves around the close work of the athlete and their medical staff. Those who recognize and embrace their new ‘team’ will build stronger relationships, gain deeper trust and likely adhere to expert advice along the road to recovery.”

In other words, if you have to be on the training table, you may as well make the most of it.


Have you ever had an injury that you failed to properly rehabilitate? Does it still give you trouble today? Incomplete rehabilitation or recovery can hamper your progress in the gym, not just in the short term, but for years to come. That’s why it’s good practice to get your “game face” on with each and every rehab session that you are prescribed. If you’re accustomed to gearing up for war with the weights, you should take a similar mindset into your recovery.

“Much the same as the medical staff becomes a new coach, injury recovery becomes the new sport,” Cuccaro says. “As much as an athlete yearns to resume play, physical and mental investment into the rehabilitation process will prove to create better use of time and energy. Some days may be filled with stretching and strengthening, while others might include ice and repeated rest. An athlete who stays committed and active with their rehab process, the same as they would their sport training, will find greater purpose and feel more fulfilled along the path back normal training.”