The Psychology Of Injury

I’ve written a previous post on active recovery and active healing for sports injuries, but this one is going to be slightly different.

Today, we’ll be examining what goes on in the mind of an athlete when injury hits.

Paul Wade wrote a section that covers, among other things, the psychology of getting injured in his superb book Convict Conditioning 2, which echoes my own experiences after 8 years of athletic training.

I’ve been a school track athlete for 6 years, and I used to do the 400m and the javelin. An odd combination to most, but I’ve always been a jack of all trades when it comes to athletics. I can do most sports relatively well, but I’ve never managed to really excel at any of them. Perhaps it’s cos I’ve never really fallen in love with any sport in particular, until now of course.

Although I’ve never mounted the podium in my days as a school athlete, I’ve had my fair share of experiences from all the training that I’ve gone through. 

By experiences I mean injuries, of course.

I’ve torn my left hamstring, and picked up a wide assortment of other strains and sprains that are almost inevitable for an athlete.

So what goes through the mind of an athlete when he’s struck by a particularly debilitating injury?

I’d say it’s a whole cocktail of negative emotions, which can be collectively described as depression.

There’ll be waves of sadness when you find yourself unable to perform movements that you take for granted all the time.

There’ll be anger that comes from frustration, when the injury isn’t healing nearly as quickly or as well as you might desire.

There’ll be periods of time when you may simply space out, as your mind attempts to take a break from the potent soup of negativity that’s been churning in your skull all day long.

Sometimes you may be distracted by things, maybe when you are watching TV or playing your favourite computer game. But as soon as the blissful hours are over, you’ll probably be moping over your injury again.

So how should one deal with the psychology of injury?

First things first, you need to kick-start the rational part of your brain.

Successful people are often the ones who can compartmentalise their emotions, and separate their decision-making process from emotional influences. So we can all take a page from their book when we are fighting our psychological battles against our injuries.

Identify your negative emotions and isolate them. I know I know, easier said then done, right? That’s why we need to supply the logical and rational parts of your brain with more ammunition so that they can do their work.

You need to know that in alot of ways, your rate of recovery and the quality of your recovery is dependent upon your mood.

Check this out:

“A positive attitude releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that aids relaxation while boosting energy levels; perfect recovery fuel. Positivity stimulates the immune system and releases beta-endorphins which provide pain relief. Recent research even indicates that a good mood can increase circulating human growth hormone — one of the most powerful anabolic healing agents in the body.

There is a very real biology of faith. Tap into it!”

That’s from Convict Conditioning 2, in case you were wondering. I think Paul Wade sums it up pretty good. Faith that you will recover from your injury can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the flip side, if you don’t believe that you’ll ever mend, chances are that you won’t.

The mind is an extremely powerful organ in terms of its influence on our actions. Afte all, every conscious action is a result of conscious thought. Let me show you an example:

If you are convinced that there’s no chance that you’re going to pass the upcoming exams, you’ll probably just give up studying, slack off, and end up flunking spectacularly at the end of the day.

On the other hand, if you’re certain that there’s a chance for you to ace the same exams, odds are you’ll work hard for it, and you’ll probably pass with flying colours.

So you see, thinking that things aren’t going to work out will never help, cos it shuts down all positive action. Similarly, if you have faith in a good outcome, you’ll probably conduct yourself in such a way as to facilitate the coming of the bright future that you foresee. So I guess this is where the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” comes from.

Before you do anything else, set your mind right. Straighten out your thinking, and know that the depressed feeling and all of that negativity is a natural by-product of you being injured. But also know that they won’t help you recover in any way, so stay happy and positive, and be optimistic about your chances of recovery. At the very least, do your very best to maintain a good mood and high spirits, it’ll do your healing process (both mental and physical) a whole world of good.

Getting injured is also a part of an athlete’s learning process. There is always something to be learnt from an injury.

As soon as you get injured, you need to stop whatever it is that you’re doing. Don’t be gung-ho and try and complete the set, if you’re in the middle of one. Stop. And start thinking.

Most of the time, aside from freak accidents (which demonstrate the unpredictability of life, and fate), training-related injuries are a result of some strength or structural imbalance, or poor technique, or excessive fatigue levels. 

Strength or structural imbalances in the body often cause either acute or chronic injury on the stronger side, or the side that ends up carrying significantly more of the load during a movement or an exercise. This is because the “better” side overcompensates while the weaker half slacks off. 

Poor technique can end up hurting you as well. Some common problems are overarching of the lower back when carrying heavy weights, and slamming your feet into the ground when running or jumping. 

When you’re worn out but persist in your exercise routine, injuries can occur as fatigued muscles give out under mechanical stress; a lapse in your concentration can also result in disastrous consequences.


Identify the cause of your injury, and if it is not a random event or a freak accident, then it’s time to review the way you work. Imbalances need to be ironed out, poor form and technique must be corrected, and your workload must be moderated when you are reaching dangerous levels of fatigue either mentally or physically, or both.

Working out the cause of your injury is the first step to becoming better at what you do, assuming that the injury isn’t permanent, or crippling. When you have rectified the problem that your injury has uncovered for you, you’ll be able to take your game to a whole new level.

So in that sense, an injury can in fact be a blessing in disguise. Not only can it potentially help you solve problems that may have gone unnoticed previously, and improving your athletic performance as a result, getting an acute but non-crippling injury early on could also save you from graver calamities in the future, when you are working with much greater loads and mechanical stresses, all of which can cause damage on a scale that is far more serious than what you are currently suffering from.

In the aftermath of your injury, try to keep yourself physically active, as much as you can safely manage. Moving around will keep your mind and spirit preoccupied, and make you feel loads better as compared to just lying around on the bed or the couch. If your injury is keeping you immobile, do your best to keep yourself mentally active, by reading your favourite book, surfing the net, talking to people, or even playing a simple game of chess with a friend or a family member.

Take your time to work your way back to strength and health. Don’t rush, but let yourself feel excited about every bit of progress that you make. Enjoy the journey back to reaching your original capacity. Sometimes, we get so obsessed with our training (for those of us nutcases) that we neglect other important parts of our life. Don’t let your training consume you. You have a whole life to live and a huge array of other stuff that are worth exploring. So an injury could be a timely reminder for those of us who are losing ourselves in what we love to do, which can be a bad thing.

Find a few hobbies, and your life will feel much more vibrant. I like to read and write and doodle and take pictures with my newly-acquired camera (actually a hand-me-down from my sister hehe), and these are the things that balance out my physical training. Most things in excess become poison, but things in balance become pleasant and harmonious.

So that’s all from me on this topic, just know that everyone falls now and then, just keep your head up, and keep going, and you will soon see the light. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~


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