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The Psychology of Sports Injury

Working with injured athletes takes patience, knowledge and understanding.

Injury happens to almost everyone. Every athlete, and, indeed, every person, has some risk of sustaining an injury. Most fitness professionals have had to deal with an injury at some point, so many of us know how frustrating it can be. We tend to discuss injury as something that happens to a part of the body - as a physical occurrence, with physical causes and physical symptoms. But the physical aspect of an injury is only part of the story. Thoughts, feelings and spirit all contribute to sport performance, and are important parts of every athlete. While the physical part of the athlete and of the injury are the most visible, it is important to consider the whole person when working with every client.

Psychological response to sport injury

Injuries hurt, limit mobility, require special care and compromise our lives. We may have to spend hours in surgery, physical therapy or at home. Most people have a negative psychological response to injury. But athletes may have an even stronger negative response than most people, since their lives rely so heavily on their physical abilities.

Many researchers have studied athletes' emotional responses to injury. Responses are as varied as athletes themselves, and it is impossible to devise one model that fits all. In general, while a small minority of athletes is relieved to have a reason to leave a sport, most athletes experience a wide range of intense, negative emotions following an injury. Athletes usually feel some combination of frustration, anger, boredom, depression, fear, anxiety, confusion and loneliness after injury. These negative emotions not only feel bad, but can interfere with their determination to return to play, and their adherence to their rehabilitation and fitness programs. Negative emotions may also interfere with athletes' success in school and work, and with their personal relationships.

Reactions to injury

The more serious the injury, the more the injury disrupts the athlete's sport participation and life in general. An injury may disrupt school or work because of medical appointments and mobility limitations. Pain and medications may cause difficulty concentrating. Work and stress pile up. Sometimes athletes may have trouble getting meals and conquering other simple tasks, such as cleaning and laundry.

An athlete's psychological response to injury is strongly influenced by his or her perception of the injury. Does the medical team seem concerned? What is the prognosis? Even apparently minor injuries may be worrisome if the prognosis is uncertain or poor. Chronic injuries that don't seem to heal can also be problematic. Good healthcare providers know that athletes need information, but they also need hope. If you speak with your clients about their injuries, be sure to always offer hope for recovery.

The meaning of sport participation

The more strongly people identify themselves with the role of athlete, and the more important sport is in their lives, the more they will suffer psychologically from sports injuries. Life without sport participation may feel boring or depressing, and athletes sidelined with injury may struggle with a changing sense of identity, especially when injuries are serious.

Athlete's personal situation

Many personal factors influence an athlete's psychological response to a sport injury. The timing of the injury in terms of the sport season and in terms of the athlete's career is important. An athlete's personality and stress hardiness influence the athlete's response to injury. Athletes who feel strong positive social support from teammates, friends and family tend to weather injury stress better.

Brown, C. Injuries: The psychology of recovery and rehab. In Murphy, S. (Ed.), The Sport Psych Handbook, pp.215-235. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2005.
Crossman, J. Managing thoughts, stress and pain. In Crossman, J. (Ed.), Coping with Sports Injuries: Psychological Strategies for Rehabilitation, pp.128-147. Oxford University Press: Oxford, England, 2001.
Podlog, L., and R.C. Eklund. The psychosocial aspects of a return to sport following serious injury: A review of the literature from a self-determination perspective. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 8(4): 535-566, 2007.
Weiss, M.R. Psychological aspects of sport-injury rehabilitation: A developmental perspective. Journal of Athletic Training 38(2): 172-175, 2003.
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