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Emotions & Sport Injury: Handling More than Physical Pain

Kelsey Ruffing, MA, LPC


You are a 17 year old basketball player and you have made the Varsity high school basketball team. You start each game, your team is in the playoffs, and you are excited about the recognition you are receiving from peers and college recruiters. You have worked hard to get where you are, training countless hours, always on the court, basketball is what you know; then with five minutes left on the clock you hear a loud pop, you feel an excruciating pain in your leg, and you’re overcome with a feeling of dread. You are now injured and your future as a basketball player is plagued with question marks.

All too often, athletes are finding themselves in similar situations as this 17 year old, becoming seriously injured and left with thousands of questions that revolve around getting back to the sport they love and returning to their normal functioning. Whether an athlete is looking for their college scholarship, looking to advance to the pros, or looking to make their high school team, each scenario brings about the same distressing emotions when dealing with an injury. Sport is built on toughness and competition. If there is blood, it means you worked hard and if you do not have a couple bumps and bruises, then you need to work harder. Athletes are taught to mentally “get up and shake it off.” As a serious athlete there is no time to take a seat or cry, you push through. Often, this is what makes sport interesting and exciting, and what makes an athlete stronger in competition-their will to win, but what happens when the injury is serious? What happens when the physical pain of injury subsides, and the mental side kicks in? It is easy to treat what can be seen (physical), but difficult to treat what cannot (mental).

Research shows that the period following injury can be the most distressing for an athlete. Across the board, athletes have all commonly and consistently shown signs of anger, confusion, depression, fear and frustration post injury (Crossman). In more severe cases, many athletes report extreme depression after sustaining an injury and report feeling suicidal. Maybe you are a parent or a coach wondering about a certain athlete at this point, telling yourself you would know if your son/daughter/athlete was feeling this way. That probably is not the case, you probably have no idea. Sport is emotional, but negative emotions (like fear, frustration, and depression) are too commonly swept under the rug. It has become the nature of sport to not admit these emotions and to suppress them, or else the athlete may be labeled as weak. On the contrary, what needs to be understood, is that at some point the majority of athletes will experience these emotions and will need coping strategies for dealing with them. It is often easy to see if an athlete is distressed if you see that their performance has dwindled, however if they are injured and not playing, you cannot see them perform and it may be very difficult to “see” if they are having any difficulties mentally. One of the most common emotions reported by athletes post injury is fear. Fear of re-injury after returning to play is what athletes most often experience. Understandably so, they just spent months rehabilitating their injury and watching everyone else play, why would they ever want to go through this again? Ironically, the fear of re-injuring one’s self is what most often leads to the next injury. When an athlete is afraid of specific maneuvers require in their sport, they hesitate, hesitation leads to poor form and ultimately another injury.

Sometimes the athlete does not have difficulty coping or feel an emotional imbalance until the rehabilitation has begun or is about to end. When an athlete begins physical therapy, they can be optimistic, but hesitant about the process. It can be a dull and long experience for some athletes. The excitement of sport is no longer in their day to day and they are not getting the same stimulation that they once had from the sport experience. This is why proper goal setting is important during rehabilitation. It keeps the athlete motivated to reach goals, and in a competitive mindset that drives them to perform. Nearing the end of the rehabilitation process, the athlete may feel excited, but also nervous about their position on the team, reinjuring themselves, or how their team with react to their return. There are many scenarios, questions, and doubts that flow in and out of every athletes minds during this time.


Perhaps you think your child, your athlete, or yourself is having a difficult time coping with an injury and may need further help, what can you do? There are two popular inventories that can be distributed by a professional sport psychology consultant. The Profile of Mood States and the Emotional Response of Athletes to Injury are both frequently used to measure the emotional state of athletes. A sport psychology consultant will be able to better help the athlete based on the scores of the inventory and focus on the correct measures that need to be taken in order for the athlete to return to sport and normal functioning (Crossman).

A sport psychology consultant can help the athlete with effective goal setting during rehabilitation and the return to play process in order to build up self-confidence, motivation and competitive drive. Since self-doubt, low confidence and lack of motivation can accompany serious sport injury, the sport psychology consultant can work with the athlete to build these characteristics using psychological skills training techniques that include imagery, self-talk, pre-performance routines, and relaxation techniques along with other coping strategies. It is important to note that each individual is different in the way they handle injury, coping, and emotions.


Crossman, J. (2001). Coping with sports injuries: Psychological strategies for rehabilitation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.