Psychology of the Injured Athlete

Mental strategies that can help athletes overcome some of the challenges associated with injury rehabilitation.

Injuries are just as much a part of the game as batting practice and playing “pickle”. They can range from minor sliding rashes and bruises to career-threatening injuries. When your child is injured, they often experience a wide variety of emotions- perhaps denial, anger, or depression. You recognize these stages, often associated with the Grief process, and you’re right for doing so!

The injury can represent a true loss for an athlete and really, it’s quite common. The full 5 Stages of Grief are, denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. The length of time it takes the athlete to move through each stage depends on several factors, including emotional stability, type, and severity, of the injury, and the overall outlook of the injured athlete. Understanding this mindset is important for preparing an athlete for their road ahead to recovery.

The mind may recover slower than the body, and as rehab progresses, it’s common for an athlete to be physically ready for competition, but not psychologically ready in these cases. The psychological state of the athlete is as important as the athlete’s physical state, and his or her mental state can influence physiological function. Today sports psychologists are linking positive psychological strategies with a faster return to sport. So, as a parent what can you do? Here are several mental strategies that can help your child overcome some of the challenges associated with injury rehabilitation and decrease the time away from the field:

Psychological Intervention Strategies for Injury Rehab

Goal setting

Goal setting provides the athlete with a sense of control, persistence, and commitment rather than an over-reliance on their doctor or therapist/athletic trainer. In fact, the more problematic the injury and the greater the athlete’s commitment to their sport, the more intense the approach to goal setting should be. Writing down goals and planning a rehab strategy helps keep the athlete focused on healing. It’s very important, however, to set modest short-term goals since athletes can often interpret small improvements as no or insufficient improvement.


Injured athletes can struggle to stay positive about themselves and their injury to dwell on negative and irrational thoughts about themselves, their injury, and their return to performance, creating emotional states such as fear, anxiety, and depression – emotions shown to impair athletic performance and interfere with a successful rehabilitation. Reframing negative statements into more optimistic positive ones that are rehearsed and spoken by the athlete as part of his or her own internal dialogue can lead to more positive approaches to rehabilitation. Goal setting and self-talk are two of the most important techniques in the rehabilitation process.

Social support

In many cases in athletic situations, friendships may be suddenly changed because of the occurrence of an injury. Rehab can be a lonely place. Injured athletes may no longer see themselves as contributors, especially when they’re away from the sport. Therefore, it’s important to keep them engaged with teammates throughout their rehab. Support from significant others can contribute most to the differentiation between adherers and non-adherers of a sport injury rehabilitation – athletes are more likely to keep a commitment to another person than to themselves. It may also be a good idea to introduce the injured athlete to an injury support group which involves meeting regularly with a coach and other injured athletes to talk through their thoughts and emotions.


According to the theories of imagery, the muscles being imagined become slightly stimulated during imagery practice, like nerve connections experienced during actual performance, meaning improved skills development. Also, according to imagery theory, since the systems of the body consist of biological, psychological, and social components, when two or more components interact, they regulate each other. It’s through these regulations that systems become interconnected. Impairment of body processes at the physiological level can disrupt the psychological level and impairment at the psychological level can disrupt the physiological level. A major objective of healing imagery is to improve the connections between these two.

It has been suggested that positive visualization can eliminate the destructive panic-stress images in the mind which can cause closing of blood vessels and reduced blood flow to the injured area. This is important because decreased blood flow is thought to be a precursor for muscle tension, a negative outcome within rehabilitation.

Injuries are part of the game, but if you’re prepared for them when they do happen, your kids will thank you! Remember, athletes who recover most quickly from injury tend to be highly motivated, take an active role in their recovery and adhere to their rehabilitation protocols. Goal-setting techniques, healing imagery, positive self-statements and stress-management techniques have all been associated with a quicker recovery from injury and gets your child back to what they enjoy!

The U.S. Council for Athletes' Health (USCAH) was founded upon the need for trusted, independent athletic health care partners with the experience and expertise to advise and consult with organizations regarding their healthcare delivery system. This is why USCAH is committed to providing independent and unbiased medical expertise to organizations and individuals dedicated to the optimal health and safety for the athletes they serve. You can find out more about USCAH at or by reaching out to [email protected]