Coping With Injury: Avoiding the Time Travel Trap

Coping With Injury: Avoiding the Time Travel Trap

Using mental skills while you’re sidelined brings you back to the present moment, where you can take active control of your recovery process.

If you’re fortunate enough to call yourself an athlete, chances are that at some point, injury will factor into your story. Getting hurt involves far more than muscles and bones, tendons and ligaments—it’s a full-body physical, mental, and emotional experience. 

One of the biggest challenges is feeling there are so many aspects of your recovery that are out of your control. While you can’t turn back the clock or fast-forward your healing process, you do have more power than you realize, starting with the management of your own emotions and reactions in the present moment.

Your Brain: A Self-Driving Time Machine

Our thoughts have a natural tendency to time travel—moving into the past or into the future. Trouble is, your recovery is happening right here, in the present. Rewinding the tape to go back in time before you were injured or fast-forwarding it to the time when your injury is just a memory can keep you from recognizing where you are in this moment and staying focused on what you need to do right now. 

These journeys through time often feel completely out of your command—as though you have an automated time-travel device and installed it in your gray matter. What’s worse, the engineers seem to have pre-programmed the vehicle to take you back to the worst day of your life or forward to a depressing version of the future, not to the day you performed at your best or ahead to the celebration of your biggest victory. 

Even when we do return to the present, the settings on the machine can seem stuck on “chaos” and “futility.” Given that injury inherently means you’re not where you want to be, it’s easy and natural to focus on what’s difficult and also what’s out of your hands. You can quickly lose hope and feel like nothing you do will have any effect on the outcome.

When you focus on the things you can’t control about your situation, you end up with negative emotions and experiences. These types of scripts have likely run through the head of pretty much every injured athlete, on repeat. See if you recognize them in your own thoughts and reactions. 

Failures pile up when you ruminate on what you can’t alter about the past.

  • If only I hadn’t headed out for that run
  • Why did I let this happen?
  • I wish my coach hadn’t given me that workout.

Frustrations occur when you dwell on what’s out of your hands right now.

  • This sucks.
  • I can’t believe I’m missing training/this race.
  • My sponsors are dropping me.

Fears arise when you think about what’s unknown or uncertain about the future.

  • What if I don’t come back as strong as I was before I was injured?
  • What if the doctors can’t fix me?
  • What if I get injured again?

Our brains are hard-wired to focus on the negative—it’s part of what’s enabled us to survive as a species. There’s no way you can force your brain to stay present and positive all the time, and attempting to do so will merely cause more frustration. You’ll have a much easier time moving past your emotions if you truly own up to and experience them.

Flipping the Override Switch

However, you don’t have to bide your time like you are in limbo, stuck in a waiting room until your circumstances change.

Your time-traveling, negative-focused brain has a manual override switch; you just have to step up to the controls. One of the most powerful mental skills you can have as an athlete, and as a human, is the ability to be mindful. This means staying in the present moment—or more specifically, the ability to bring yourself back to the present moment, and to do so without judgment. 

Though it’s not quite as instantaneous as hitting a button or flipping a switch, with dedication and practice, it’s possible to come back to the present, drop the negative storylines spinning through your head, and trade the cycle of hopelessness, despair, and anxiety for positive forward momentum. 

In fact—you can turn the Fs of Fear, Frustration, and Failure into As in three simple steps:

  • Accept: Let go of what you can’t control. 
  • Adapt: Change your reactions to what’s happening.
  • Act: Do what you can right now to create the best possible future.

These three steps—Accept, Adapt, Act—don’t always proceed in exactly that order, or only unfold once. Recovery is rarely a linear process. However, that actually makes this framework even more reassuring. You can return to it anytime you start to feel yourself losing your perspective or focus. 

These two Mental Drills can aid in turning those Fs in As—a skill that gets better with practice. Use them anytime you feel stuck in the past or zooming towards the future.

Mental Drill: Time Travel Log

Just as a GPS watch tracks your route, you can keep tabs on the times when your energy and focus wander from the present moment back to the past or forward to the future. Use the template below for your Time Travel Log. Commit to filling it out at least three days in a row. At the end of the three days, review and see if you can pick up on any themes. Simply bringing awareness to these trips is the first step in giving you the power to reduce their impact. 

Mental Drill: Energy Conservation

When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or scattered, or if you catch yourself time traveling and need to bring yourself back to the present moment, turn to this drill. Start by running down the list of everything on your mind right now. What are all of the different problems, situations, or concerns occupying your mental space? What are you thinking about? Who are you thinking about? 

Then imagine your energy as an entity, something that takes on form and shape—often, athletes will use a ray of light or a string. The precise image doesn’t matter; just give it some sort of shape that extends from you and literally travels out to physically connect to places representing your thoughts.

If you’re thinking about what you need at the grocery store, imagine that beam of light extending all the way out to where you go shopping. Dwelling on an upcoming competition you’ll miss or the one in the past in which you got hurt? Imagine that string stretching from you out to the venue. Take a few deep breaths while considering that image, noticing how it feels to have your energy extended so far. See if you can begin to physically feel that pull in your body. When you’re ready, visualize slowly bring that energy back towards you. Actually see that ray, string, or other physical manifestation of your energy retracting. As it comes toward you, notice how you feel. Imagine that as you slowly rein it in, you can detect a surge—the power of bringing 100 percent of your energy into the present moment.

This post was adapted with permission from Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries by Carrie Jackson Cheadle and Cindy Kuzma (Bloomsbury Sport).

Carrie Cheadle

Carrie Jackson Cheadle, MA, CMPC is a Certified Mental Performance Consultant and expert in Mental Skills Training. She consults with athletes of all ages and at every level, from recreational athletes to elite and professional athletes competing at national and international levels. Carrie is the author of the book On Top of Your Game: Mental Skills to Maximize Your Athletic Performance. She is also the co-author of the book Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries and co-host of The Injured Athletes Club podcast.