Sport Psychology for the Injured Athlete: 10 Challenges (article)


To an athlete, injury can be annoying or devastating, or fall anywhere in between. The ability to avoid injury and to return to play quickly when injured, are critical to success. When injury does occur it is useful to approach rehabilitation as part of the game that an athlete must play, transferring sport skills to rehab.

 All injuries have a psychological side, in the form of emotional costs and behavioral challenges. Meeting these “10 Challenges” will keep the athlete on the path to recovery.

Challenge 1: Knowing the Game – “Knowledge is Power”

Proactive education about injury and rehabilitation is the cornerstone of successful recovery.  Understanding the “what” and “why” of rehabilitation empowers the athlete, and cultivates a sense of personal responsibility.

Challenge 2: Identifying Goals – “Drawing the Road Map to Success”

Realistic expectations are articulated as interrelated short term, intermediate and long term goals. These guide the day-to-day process of training and treatment. Understanding the “how” of rehabilitation defines the athlete’s role in treatment and invests the athlete in the process.

Challenge 3: Visualizing the Plan – “See, Believe & Achieve”

Mental imagery is the “soft” side of thinking, the basis of motion and emotion. Because imagery allows a focus on visual cues and physical actions as they unfold in the moment, it functions like a “language for action.” The richness and varied possibilities presented by imagery make it a useful tool for the rehearsal of psychological skills in sport and rehabilitation. 

Challenge 4: Focusing Thinking – “Mental Tenacity”

Thinking about the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, is as essential to successful rehabilitation as it is to sport performance. Pain and the emotional sequelae of injury are potent distractions.  The formidable challenge of rehabilitation demands a task oriented focus that endures over time.

Challenge 5:   Managing Emotions – “Bringing Heart to Rehab”

Emotion is the fire that fuels human endeavor in sickness and in health. The athlete must face and work through feelings of loss and threat that follow from injury. The channeling and modulation of emotion (positive and negative) energizes the rehabilitation process.

Challenge 6: Playing with Pain – “Mastering the Mind-Body Paradox”

Pain is inevitable as physical limits are pushed in the pursuit of excellence. Pain assessment is a fundamental skill in sport and rehab. By differentiating performance pain and injury, the athlete adjusts actions accordingly. The greatest challenge is in the uncoupling of pain and fear.

Challenge 7: Training with Intensity – “Working smarter”

A universal set of physical training principles underlies all forms of athleticism. Modulated intensity with precise skill execution is the central task of sport and rehabilitation. Physiological conditioning and biomechanical precision are the means by which recovery and readiness for return to play unfold.

Challenge 8:   Calculating Risk – “Playing the Edge”

To strive as an athlete is to take risks of losing, of failure, and of injury. Carefully calculated risk-taking moves the athlete out of harm’s way and along the path to success. Incisive decision making is an executive function that assimilates knowledge of ability, intensity and pain.

Challenge 9:  Staying Mentally Tough – “Courage in Adversity”

Toughness shows when tired, hurt, discouraged, and distressed. The critical task is turning negative momentum to the positive. Surviving adversity begins with having the courage to take control of what can be controlled – personal thoughts, feelings and actions. This enables the athlete to learn to live well with winning and losing.

Challenge 10: Self-Actualizing – “Striving for the Zone”

The desire to take one’s game to a higher level is a fundamental element of the human spirit that sport celebrates. Self-actualization is the personal growth and discovery that comes as striving gives way to thriving. Peak experiences are the supremely satisfying moments when the pursuit of excellence guides the athlete into the zone.

In meeting these 10 challenges the athlete can engage in the struggle with the injury, and with other adversity, with a sense of direction and purpose. 

Dr. John Heil is chair of Sport Science for US Fencing, and the author of the Psychology of Sport Injury (available at: He is with Psychological Health Roanoke in Roanoke, VA, and can be reached at [email protected]

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