I’ve been through two different knee injuries on my left knee and I can tell you that my recovery from the first injury was drastically different than the second. The reason for this is because my second knee injury happened while I was in the middle of my sport psychology graduate program. As soon as I was injured, I decided to put as much effort into my mental recovery as I did my physical recovery—and it paid dividends.
I came back both mentally and physically stronger because of my dedication to working on my mental fitness as much as my physical fitness. If you’ve ever been injured, you know that sometimes your body is healed before your confidence is. Your brain needs its own physical therapy to get back to the confidence and composure you felt before you got injured.
One of the most amazing things about dedicating yourself to working on your mental fitness during your injury recovery is that all of those mental skills that help you develop your mental toughness continue to help you post injury as well. Here are three ways to work on your mental game while you are injured:
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1. Remember to breathe
It might seem like an impossible task—to relax and stay positive during one of the most challenging times in your athletic career. It almost seems cruel that your body needs you to de-stress (so you can heal) at the same time you are dealing with one of the most stressful things you will face as an athlete. Holding your breath is both a symptom of and a trigger for anxiety. Remembering to breathe will help you reduce the physiological symptoms of anxiety and will reduce the psychological anxiety you feel as well.
Tip: Try making your exhale just a little bit longer than your inhale. This will help slow your breathing down and therefore slow your heart rate down, making you feel more calm and relaxed.
2. Focus on what’s in your control
As humans, we tend to not like the unknown and experience stress when there are things impacting us that are out of our control. It just so happens that these are two of the biggest challenges you’ll face when you’re injured. It’s difficult to not let your mind get swept away by all of the “what-ifs” and keep yourself focused on what you can do versus what you cannot. Shifting your focus to what is in your control will help you regain your composure, stop thinking too far into the future and feel confident and motivated to take the next step.
Tip: Any time you feel your stress response triggered, see if what you are focused on is something that is out of your control and consciously shift your focus to something that is in your control. For example, missing out on your favorite weekly ride for a month is out of your control, but you can make it a point to see your riding buddies regularly to keep that connection and get support.
3. Adjust your goals
Coming back from injury can make it difficult not to gauge your feelings of success based on what you were able to do before you were injured. Additionally, one of the greatest challenges you face when injured is dealing with the setbacks that come along the way. Facing a setback right at that moment when you finally feel like you are making progress can feel devastating. This requires you to master the skill of goal adjustment. Your ability to adjust your goals and redefine what it means to be successful in that moment is imperative for keeping your head up and putting one foot in front of the other.
Tip: Write out your goals so you have a visual reminder of what you are working on right now. Be sure to be accurate with how you are defining success and celebrate those milestones along the way.
You need to be patient with this process and understand the importance of taking ownership over your mental game. Not only will it help you become more resilient throughout your injury process, but can provide you with the opportunity to come back mentally and physically stronger than you were before your injury.