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Staying Positive After an Injury 

By Dr. Mitchell Greene

  injury As fast as you can say hip strain or Achilles tear, a triathlete’s psyche can flip from confident to insecure. Punishing early morning workouts and weekend suffer sessions can seem like child’s play compared to the uncertainty of knowing if and when you will race again. Most injured triathletes agree that keeping one’s mental balance is both the hardest and the most important aspect of recovery and well-being.

Below is a typical conversation between an injured triathlete (Gail) and a sport psychologist (SP). The exchange highlights some common concerns of an injured triathlete and how a sport psychologist might help the individual maintain perspective when their mind is making mincemeat of their confidence and future goals.

Gail: I don’t think that I will ever be as fast as I was before my injury.

SP: That may be true. Of course, you could also be wrong.

Gail: I just can’t afford to be slower. If I’m slower I swear I might as well just quit the sport altogether.

SP: OK, I get it. You have every right to be upset and to consider even such drastic options as dropping out altogether. You just want things to be back the way they were before you got hurt. 

Gail: Exactly, and truthfully I am terrified that I won’t be able to compete like I did before.

SP: Let me ask you a few questions. Why have you chosen to try and come back to triathlon after having been injured? Why are you putting yourself through all of this physical and mental anguish?

Gail: I just love it. You won’t find me ever just sitting around. I’ll be 80 and if I can’t run or bike, hopefully I’ll still be swimming. I love the people, the competition, the whole scene. That’s why I’m back. It’s part of who I am. It can be crazy but it’s fun.

SP: I notice your answer didn’t include anything about being faster. You said you loved the sport but you didn’t say anything about being faster as a reason why you are pushing so hard to rehab.

Gail: That’s true. So what are you trying to say?

SP: I’m saying that your reason for doing triathlons is different from your goals in a particular race. You have been talking as if going fast was all there is in racing for you, when obviously there’s more than your speed that keeps you coming back for more. I just wanted us to at least be clear about that.

Gail: Okay, but my goal is still the same.

SP: Of course, that’s your choice. You can have any goal you want. However, keeping the same goal right after you have been injured is a bit like insisting on arriving on time in Boston when they already announced that flights are delayed. 

Gail: Are you saying that I’m fighting too hard to stick with my original goal?

SP: Yes. I’m reminded of what Jordan Rapp said. Jordan is a professional triathlete who recovered from a very serious bike accident. He said that after his injury he discovered that he couldn’t just “bulldoze [his] way through every problem.” He added that he hadn’t asked for time to reflect, but maybe it was just what he needed. It sounds like you, too, are in full-speed-ahead “bulldoze” mode rather than taking the time to re-examine your options and strategies.

Gail: I can relate to the idea of being a bulldozer. I bulldoze in everything I do.

SP: Maybe the bigger message for you here is about self-acceptance. Learning to accept who and where you are at any particular point in time can be an immensely valuable lesson. I know you didn’t plan for this to be the time to work on that particular skill set, but now that we’re here, why pass up the opportunity? Also, remember that injuries (and compensating for them) are very much a part of the sport—something that almost inevitably comes with the territory.

Gail: You are right. I’m acting like I’m the only one this happens to. I should be glad that I can actually do some training. Some people aren’t so lucky. Actually, if I follow my coach’s advice, which I haven’t, I should probably just shut it down completely rather than jumping back into training before my injury has healed. You know, I always did want to try yoga.

SP: I think a game plan is beginning to develop here for you.

Gail: I think you are right.

It took a few weeks, but Gail realized that her unexpected break from triathlon could bring about some surprising opportunities. Besides committing to yoga, Gail fine-tuned her swimming and in the process transformed the weakest part of her racing into a significant strength. Although Gail did not plan for her priorities to change the way they did, she found herself benefitting from the additional quality time she had with her family and friends. She realized that her time away would actually add to her appreciation and enjoyment of the sport when she healed.

The sport psychologist in this interchange made an effort to not minimize the significance of Gail’s injury, and also saw the importance of challenging Gail’s assumptions about what drives her to pursue triathlon. Gail’s mental energy shifted over time from resistance to acceptance, which freed her up to experience untapped aspects of her personality. She excitedly took the entire recovery experience – the good and the not-so-good – into her next phase of triathlon training and racing.

You may relate to Gail's situation and from it we can see how the games we play as athletes provide us with opportunities to face our humanity. The goals we set point us in a particular direction, but our purpose in playing or participating is always to learn about our capabilities and to experience a sense of aliveness. If we lose our way due to injury or other unexpected situations, often times it’s because the goals and the purpose have been confused. Ask yourself what your true passion is as it relates to multisport, and why you want to return to the sport after a setback. Likely you will find, like Gail did, that it's just a matter of how and why you will return instead of giving up something you love.

Dr. Mitchell Greene is the sport psychology consultant to the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon and the SheRox Triathlon series. Dr. Greene works with a range of competitive triathletes, from professional to recreational. If you have questions for Dr. Greene, you can email him at greenepsych@gmail.com. To see sample sport psychology videos aimed at endurance athletes, go to www.greenepsych.com and locate the PlayGr8 button in the upper right hand corner of the screen. You can login using "greenepsych@gmail.com" and "journey" as the password.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach. 

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