Dealing with Sport Injury | Q&A with Coach Rebecca

Today’s Topic: Dealing With Injury and Moving Forward

Hi everybody. Welcome to Q&A with Coach Rebecca. I am live answering questions from members of the PerformHappy Community as well as people who come here and have things to ask.

About me

If you’re just meeting me, my name is Rebecca Smith. I’m a High Performance Coach, specializing in helping kids age 8 to 18 improve performance. Typically it’s through the mental side. It’s all about the mind-body connection, stuff. If it isn’t just quite right, you can’t be the best athlete you can possibly be.

There are a couple ways I do this work with kids:

  • Through one on one coaching with kids over Skype or FaceTime
  • Through my online mental toughness training community, the PerformHappy Community.


I’ve gotten a couple of questions in the last week or so on injury.  One athlete was injured at Nationals and one is getting ready to go back after injury.  Both of them were knee injuries (Ugh, that’s the worst).  So I’m going to answer these questions from both angles, talking about the recovery phase and then also the re-entry phase.

I’ll read the first question from the girl who just got injured. She emailed me saying,

Q: “I recently competed at Nationals and on my last pass on floor I hurt my right knee doing a double full. I went to the doctor and …” Long story short she’s going to need surgery and potentially be out for six to eight months, which is terrible. But then she also said that there was a gymnast at her gym that recovered with the same surgery in about three to four months and she says she feels like she needs some motivation to keep pushing through. “I want to get stronger and healthier than I have ever been, because I’d love to do college gymnastics. There have been gymnasts in the past who have gotten through the same struggle that I’m facing and are now college athletes. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what I should do now and going forward.”


There’s this story that I originally thought of right away when I read this, was that there’s a woman named Marilyn King.  She was an Olympian in the 80’s, and she was a decathlete.  She did all the track and field events.  She was training for her second Olympics when she was in a car accident and she broke her back.  And she was confined to a hospital for six months.  This was the critical six months right before the Olympics.

She had already qualified, so she was already in.  But now she had to convince these doctors not only that she would be able to get up and compete, but that she’d actually walk again.  They were telling her, “don’t be surprised if you never walk again.”  She immediately thought to herself, “I’m walking out there at those opening ceremonies.  I will be walking out there.  I will be competing.”

During those six months, she visualized her training.  For six months, in her mind, in a hospital bed, she trained. She laced up her shoes. She ran. Did her warm ups. She did everything that she would have done in a typical three hour track practice in her mind from her hospital bed.

She competed at those Olympics and walked out just like she had envisioned, on to the track for opening ceremonies and she competed.  And that’s absolutely possible but only if you have that same attitude.


Believing it, feeling it and acting on it

If you’re looking at your injury and you’re going, “well I’ve got to go compete in college because this is what I love and there’s no question in my mind this is what I’ll be doing,” then there is no question that’s what you’ll be doing.

But if you’re thinking, “oh my gosh I’m a senior, there’s no way I’ll be able to get back …”  It all depends on the belief.  If you believe you can do it, you can do it.  And this isn’t the same as trying to convince yourself that you believe it.  It’s believing it, feeling it, acting on it.  And then you get the outcomes.

That’s the whole process of determining psychologically how well you’ll come back from injury.  It starts with belief.  If you believe you can do it, then there’s a chance. If you think, “I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to come back from this…” then that’s where you’re at.


Address your beliefs – if you believe you can do it, then there’s a chance

When you’re out, the best thing you can do is address your beliefs. There was a study done on basketball players that were injured at different points in the season.  Some got injured early season, mid season, late season.  All of the people who had said, “now is the best time to get injured!”  Healed quicker and came back stronger than those who thought, “this is the worst time to get injured.”

Just the matter of looking at it in a different way … Like, “okay, I got injured now, before I was already in college.  This is the best time.  Now it’s summer, my season just ended, I have time to get back in, I have time to rebuild… This is the best time to get injured.  Hooray!” Even just looking at it in that way, appraising it like, “Good … this was the best way that that could have gone down. I know I’m going to come back, what do I need to do now?”


Dial down the pressure

Optimism and low pressure are important.  But it’s kind of two-fold.  You’ve got to be able to go,  “Yes, I’m going to do it.  No question.  I will be there, I will walk out at opening ceremonies.  I will compete in college…”  Whatever that big dream is, you’ve got to really feel it and believe it deeply.

But at the same time,  you’ve got to be able to take the pressure down enough that you can just dive into that belief and that optimism without a sense of stress.

I know … The clock is always ticking.  But instead of thinking about it that way, you go, “look how much time I have until I have to compete again.  Even if it takes eight months, I can be working out in my mind, doing the things that I need to do to get myself back on track.  I can be working on my beliefs or working on technique mentally.  I can be conditioning, and I can stay strong.”

There’s a lot you can do.  If you’ve got that in mind, you can.


Feelings, they can make it or break it

Feelings. They greatly affect your ability to come back and your ability to come back strong.  If you’re feeling bored or guilty, or if you’re feeling depressed, anxious, burned out or tired.  Any of that stuff.  That’s going to take down your likelihood of making the full recovery as quickly as possible.

So your job actually is to process those feelings.  Don’t just go, “okay, I can’t be thinking this, push it down, push it down.”  Because your feelings are like whack-a-mole.  If they’re in there, they’re going to pop up.  And if you don’t want them to pop up … You know, they’ll pop up whenever they want.  They’ll pop up when you’re freaking out at your parents, or when you burst into tears randomly somewhere. So you have to deal with feelings.

This is something I do with kids all the time.   Sometimes we just talk.  Get it out.  If you can get it out and just be mad, sad, afraid, all those things…  Just let it come up and out…  Then it doesn’t have to pop up when you least expect it.  When it’s inconvenient.


Write it out

I really encourage writing.  There are studies that show if you write about a trauma (like your injury), it actually gets it out and it takes down the negative feelings associated with the event.  So if you can even write it repeatedly:

  • Write it out once.
  • Write it out in a month.
  • In another month.

Just get it out.

You’ll notice that the story actually starts to change a little bit for the positive.  It’s based on narrative psychology.  (If that’s something that’s interesting, you can definitely look it up.)  Just writing about the same traumatic experience repeatedly makes the experience have less effect on your emotions.  And if you are more positive and have good self-belief then your chances of coming back are better.


Behavior and coping

We’ve got beliefs, feelings and the next one is behavior.  Your beliefs affect your feelings, which affect your behavior.

If you believe in yourself, you feel good.  Your behavior is going to be: strong effort, asking for help, taking action on things, pushing through fear.  And that behavior leads to better outcomes.  But if you’ve got negative beliefs, like, “that was awful, I can’t believe this happened, I’ll never go back to where I was.”  Then you’ve got these negative feelings which lead to behaviors like: not asking for help, not coping well and then actually slower recovery, and more fear of re-injury.

So it starts with belief.  Then it goes to feelings.  Those are the things you’ve got to be working on while you’re in recovery mode.  Then when you return, the most important thing is to take it easy.  Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.


There are five phases of returning to a sport after an injury:

1) Initial return

That is when you’re just testing the waters.  You’re like, “am I strong enough? Okay I am.”  Because the doctor has already cleared you, but there’s still this period of time where you’re cleared, but you don’t really know what your body will do.  So you’re easing in. That’s the initial recovery.


2) You’re sure that you’re okay

And then, you get to the point where you’re sure that you’re okay.  You’ve been able to do stuff.  You’re confirmed that you have healed.  The doctor’s good, you feel good, coaches know that you’re ready.


3) Your abilities return

Then you get to this phase, when you’re getting back to where you were.  This is something that I deal with a lot with people who have mental blocks is that they have this “should” factor:

  • I should…
  • I should have been a level 10.
  • It should have been me up there with my team mates.
  • I should have been elite.

Which can make you stubborn and frustrated and not want to ask for the help you need.

You’re going back in and re-learning a skill.  You need to re-learn both physically and mentally.  Your mind doesn’t want anything to do with pain or the unknown.  So if your brain thinks that you’re going to get hurt, then it’s going to stop you.  Which might mean bailing out, which actually increases your likelihood of getting injured.


4) Taking it slow and building your foundation

What you want to do is take really slow steps forward.  Start where you are.

Where are you?  What can you do confidently today?  You’ve already dipped your toe in, you’re seeing what you can do and then you realize, “alright. I’m okay. I’m not hurt anymore.”  Then you start from there and take baby steps.  And any time that you hit a wall, take a step back whenever you need.  (Instead of continually trying and failing, trying and failing, which actually reinforces the mental block)

Take a step back and you talk to your coaches. Let them know you might need extra mats.  You might need extra spots.  And if they’re not okay with that, then you have to be ready to accept what they’re giving you and maybe not attempt as many things.  It is so important to come back and build a mental foundation of patience and competence that comes from successful completions of skills.  Not from bailing out, hitting walls or getting frustrated.


5) Confidence in your performance, post recovery

Here are some ways to improve the transition back in after injury:

Imagery is number one.  Then there’s confidence training.  Basically you need to get yourself into the place where you feel like you can do it, you can come back.  Maybe you’re not doing it today, but you believe in yourself.  And that’s an important part of what I teach in the PerformHappy Community.


Visualization to build confidence

The one thing that is the most helpful, whatever phase of injury you’re in (or even if you’re not injured) is imagery.

That’s what Marilyn King did, she was in bed, doing her visualization.  What you really want to do is visualize in the most life-like way possible.  You want to feel everything going on.  You close your eyes, and you feel like it’s really happening.

Another study showed that after 10 sessions of guided relaxation and imagery, athletes had less pain, greater strength and less anxiety about re-injury.

I’ve put together a visualization on building confidence that you guys are welcome to download if you like.  Click here to download it for free.  It’s a visualization that gets you super relaxed and helps you build confidence.

If you are working on coming back from an injury, listen to it every day.  That can drastically increase your speed of getting back to health.  It can also help you feel a little bit better about the whole situation, which can help you get your skills back sooner.


Fear training

I have six whole trainings just on fear.  And then we go into finding flow, which is all about finding that part of you that believes in yourself, that can stay focused, that can do anything you set your mind to.


Things to remember:

  • Imagery
  • Confidence building
  • Dealing with negative emotions
  • Write
  • Talk it out, to a friend or a parent
  • Get social support.  Talk to your friends.  Go and be a part of the team, even if you’re not able to do much, go and condition.  Be an assistant coach.  Go in and put your foot up on a mat and help your friends.  Do what you can to be a part of the social environment.
  • Finally, set goals and stick to them.

Set little goals every week that mean you’re moving forward.  Always moving forward, always pushing through a little discomfort.  Pushing your edge a little farther out every week.

That’s it for today. If you have questions that you want answered live, join us every Monday 4:30 Pacific, on the Complete Performance Coaching Facebook page.  See you again next week!

Is your gymnast struggling with mental blocks or fear?  Check out my FREE resource for parents.