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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.”
It’d be nice if we all had Wolverine-like healing powers. But we don’t. Recovery timetables vary greatly from person to person and injury to injury. Your brain, which is used to periodized training blocks – six weeks for size, then six to shred, for example – is almost certain to expect a clean bill of health by some arbitrary, generalized target date. If you sprain an ankle, for example, you may expect to take 2-4 weeks to recover. But this sprain may be higher, or it may have affected more ligaments, or perhaps your diet is different. The reality is that there are too many factors involved to issue any one person a set-in-stone, return-to-activity date.
“Having a specific date in mind to come back may prove to be more of a distraction than a motivator throughout the recovery process, especially near the end of the process,” he says. “Dates don’t make an athlete ready, recovery makes an athlete ready. Those who stay focused and committed to recovery will make a stronger and healthier return to activity, while those who allow certain dates to dictate their return might find themselves right back at the beginning of the injury recovery process.”
If you’ve ever been over-ambitious in getting back to normal weight loads and volume, then you know – getting back too early can put you out of commission for much longer.
“How an athlete views an injury is ultimately the choice of the athlete,” Cuccaro says. “Observe the behaviors of the athletes at the highest level and you will see a reaction to injury not unlike the one described above. From the beginning to end stages of an injury, an athlete has complete control over his or her physical and emotional response. Elite athletes understand and adhere to a more facilitative response, one that will quicken the recovery process and leave them fully ready to return to their sport.”
You may not consider yourself elite but the factors that elevate you to that status are equally as applicable to your training as they are to how you recover mentally from the inevitable sprains and strains that come along with regular exercise.
Matt Cuccaro is the Director of Mental Training at Ivan Lendl International Junior Tennis Academy in Hilton Head Island, SC. Matt has a Masters of Education in Counseling/Sport Psychology from Boston University and is an active member of the Association for Applied Sport Psychology. Matt has worked with individuals, coaches, and administrators in a number of sports from the junior to world class professional level. He can be followed on Twitter at @MentalCoachMatt. Find information about Matt’s practice, Telos Sport Psychology Coaching, at www.telos-spc.com.