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The Psychology of Sports Injuries

author image Linda Purves
Linda Purves is a personal fitness trainer and sports coach with professional qualifications gained in many areas including athletics, cycling, equestrian sports and sports psychology. Since 2003 her published articles have appeared in a variety of U.K. magazines including "Your Horse," "Horse and Rider" and "Running Free." Purves' first book, "Horse and Rider Fitness," was published by Kenilworth Press in 2006.
The Psychology of Sports Injuries
Sports injuries can cause psychological as well as physical damage. Photo Credit: Huntstock/DisabilityImages/Getty Images

If you are an athlete, the effects of being forced out of action through injury can be psychological as well as physical. A period of rest and recovery is essential to aid the rehabilitation process but the sudden loss of physical activity in your life can create a psychological state that has been likened to the grieving process. Here are the various stages that characterize the trauma associated with sports injuries.

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The bereavement process defined by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross as the “five stages of grief” can be applied to the rehabilitation process following a serious sports injury. The sense of loss experienced when unable to take part in sport leads to the first two stages of denial and anger. At top competitive level, an athlete considers himself to be superior in terms of physical prowess so he is mentally unwilling to accept that he could be injured. The realization that an injury has occurred leads to a period of being angry at himself for having allowed the injury to occur.


Enforced rest after a sports injury can lead to a mental state of bargaining. At this stage, an injured athlete will try desperately to speed up her return to action by attempting to bargain with anyone in a position to change her circumstances. She’ll plead with her physiotherapist and her coach using a bartering system of willingness to comply with their requests in exchange for being allowed to return to training within an unrealistic time frame.


An athlete facing months of relative inactivity can slip into a state of self-pity and become increasingly withdrawn. At professional level, an athlete lives and breathes his sport so an injury creates a void that leaves him feeling out of sorts with life. At recreational level, an amateur or hobby sportsperson often has a social life connected to his sporting interest so being unable to participate can lead to a sense of isolation in other areas of life. It’s at this stage that he might lose hope of ever fully recovering and could even decide to give up on his sport completely.


A mental state of acceptance occurs once an athlete realizes that focusing on the physical rehabilitation process will give her the best chance of being able to return to her sport. A physical rehabilitation program can only be of benefit if it is adhered to so she must first psychologically accept that the prescribed exercises are the most effective way to move forward.


Studies carried out by the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece have concluded that psychological interventions positively influence athletic injury recovery. As a result, sports psychologists now advocate the use of mental skill training, including the technique of goal setting, to aid physical recovery after injury. In an article titled “Psyched Up or Psyched Out,” Keith Henschen, professor of exercise and sport science at the University of Utah states, “Often people forget that the mind is just as important as the body…It is now known that an athlete’s mental response to an injury will affect how his body responds to physical rehabilitation. ”

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