Injury can present a huge psychological challenge for athletes. Pain, on its own, provides a significant mental and emotional challenge. Being in pain is tiring and demoralising. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For many athletes and sports players, it is tough to keep focussed and motivated during extended periods of injury. There are inevitably set-backs and frustrations that are part and parcel of the journey through injury.
However, the mental challenge does not end when the athlete returns to training or competition. Often athletes find it hard to re-gain their confidence. Some athletes find that it takes a while for their performance to return to pre-injury levels. They often suffer dips in form or erratic form in the early stages of a return to competition. This can have a significant impact on their confidence, and can be a source of self-doubt. For some, there is also another dimension; confidence in their body. Athletes learn to trust and rely upon their body. Their body is instrumental in helping them to be a successful athlete. They work hard to make their body strong, athletic, powerful and skilful. As such, athletes often see it as one of their greatest assets. Injury often causes athletes to doubt their body and lose confidence in one of their most trusted allies. In physical sports, this presents them with a major challenge.
So, how can athletes learn to master their mental game through injury and learn to re-gain their confidence when they return to competition? Well, I certainly don’t think there is one guaranteed formula or answer than will work for everyone, so I am not going to offer one. Instead, I’d like to share the story of an athlete with you, in the hope that his experiences may help you.
The athlete in question is an English long jumper. I began working with him in 2008, in the lead up to the Olympic trials. At that time, Chris (the long jumper), was struggling to produce his best performance in competition. As with many athletes, he was jumping really well in training, but found it hard to take this performance into competitive situations. After a few weeks working together, Chris went to the Olympic trial and produced a personal best; finishing second. Although he wasn’t selected to represent Great Britain at the Games, he was performing at his peak. Unfortunately, by the end of the 2008 season, Chris has started to feel discomfort in his right foot. His injury was initially diagnosed as a dislocation and he was advised to slightly modify his training. Four months later, Chris was re-diagnosed (after an MRI scan) as having a complete fracture of the navicular. To compound the bad news, he was also told that the bone has stopped healing and that he would need an operation. In early 2009 Chris had surgery, in which bone from his hip was grafted to the fractured portions of his navicular, to stimulate healing in the bone. To hold it together, the two fractured elements of the navicular were pinned. Chris was instructed not to weight bear for 6 months. Psychologically, this was a huge challenge. Chris went from being on the verge of the Olympic Games, to crawling around his house on his hands and knees. He couldn’t walk from the sofa to the kitchen to make a drink. This is like being a mathematician who is unable to count. As someone who identifies themselves as an athlete, it was a major challenge.
For the following 6 months, Chris learned how to walk again. He learned how to re-stabilize his foot and to trust himself to apply pressure through it. Eventually, he went from slow walking, to slow jogging and then light training. Through this process he encountered numerous set-backs. His foot swelled (and still does) when the ligaments pull on the head of the pin that runs through his navicular. As he returned to training and then into indoor competitions, he pulled his hamstring and suffered another 8 week set back. As a result of the prolonged period of injury and the multiple set-backs, he was close to quitting the sport early in 2010. He began to doubt whether he would compete again. As I write this in early summer 2011, Chris is now starting to compete again, and is working towards the Olympic trials for London 2012.
The injury provided a real test to Chris. It challenged his motivation. He came to a stage where he questioned whether the pain and frustration was really worth it. In the UK, most track and field athletes are not incredibly well paid, so he was not motivated by money. The motivational fuel that kept him going was simply the desire to compete again. Having this strong motivational driver was absolutely crucial in helping Chris to get through this period and remain committed to his sport.
However, the challenges have not ceased. Although Chris is has largely re-established trust in his body, there is some way to go. He is training well, but has been finding challenges translating this form into competition. In recent competitions, Chris has found that he has been competing with his mental hand brake on. What does this mean? It means that he has not been allowing himself to produce jumps at full intensity. His mind has been limiting him to 75-85% of his maximum. Gradually, we are working to help Chris release the hand brake (Hartley, 2011). Put simply, we do this by allowing him to become more aware of it and how to control it. Chris is learning how to do this by focussing on his sensory feedback; primarily what he sees, hears and feels. As he becomes more in-tune with his body and its performance, Chris can start to take control of the hand brake and start to increase the intensity. Confidence comes from evidence. As he releases his hand brake, and increasing the intensity, so Chris increases his confidence in his body and his ability to control a maximal jump. With this level of confidence, he is able to allow his body to produce maximal jumps again.
But this is only a small part of the challenge. The major reason that Chris is struggling to take his form into competition is that he is experiencing pressure when he competes (Hartley, 2011a). Typically he has been nervous going into the first few jumps. As a result he has found that his performance is not matching the standard that expects. As you can imagine, the situation deteriorates from there. Chris becomes frustrated and starts to over-analyse and over-think the performance. The knock on effect is that he makes more mistakes, becomes even more frustrated and the cycle continues (Hartley, 2011; Lindsley, Brass & Thomas, 1995).
How do we approach this challenge? Our solution is to tackle the root cause of the issue. Very simply, Chris is experiencing pressure because he is focussing on getting a good outcome in the competition. He is putting pressure on himself to achieve a good result. If he fails to land a good distance in the first few jumps he starts to doubt the outcome. The problem is that Chris has started to tie himself to the result. It has taken on a great deal of importance to him. Because of this, he is struggling to focus on delivering his processes. Therefore his performance suffers. His confidence is in free-fall. He’s not enjoying competing because he’s not getting success, which is in turn having an impact on motivation (Hartley, 2011; Hartley, 2011b).
The way to attack the issue is to find out why the outcome holds such importance. As Chris and I dig below the surface, it becomes obvious that he’s been trying to prove something to himself, his coach and those who doubted he’d return to competition. For Chris, long jumping has taken on a new meaning. His reason to jump has started to shift. Instead of jumping for the love of it, jumping has become a way of making a statement. As we discussed the issue further, Chris realised that jumping well has started to become a way of justifying his decision to remain in the sport. He is aware that he’s a full time athlete. His peers are starting careers as lawyers, accountants and professionals. If Chris doesn’t jump a long way, he starts to wonder whether he is wasting his life. On this basis, the reason that Chris competes is to justify his own existence. If he isn’t jumping a long way, he starts to question his own existence. That’s why he has started to focus on the outcome and that is why he feels pressure.
The route back to success, and sanity, is to go back to basics. Chris needs to re-discover the real reason to jump. It’s still there, but has been buried beneath the junk. He still gets joy from charging down the runway, nailing a take-off and flying through the air. That is his real reason to jump. Chris is now focussed on sticking to the simple job – to jump as far into the sand-pit as he can. As he does this, he’ll start to focus away the outcome and back onto the processes. Many athletes find that they tie themselves to their success in sport. Their sense of identity and self-worth is often fuelled by the recognition they receive from their sport. Their ego starts to need and crave success. Therefore, they focus on results. This is the root cause of the issue, and the reason they perceive pressure (Hartley, 2011). To unravel this, he has to live according to the words of Irv Blitzer (John Candy’s character in the movie, Cool Runnings).
“If you’re not good enough without the gold medal, you’ll never be good enough with it”.
What the secret to success?
Be happy with yourself…regardless of how far you jump, how fast you swim, how many touchdowns you score.
Swimming fast does not make you a better person. Nor does jumping further, scoring more touchdowns or having more money. Your true success as a person has nothing to do with those things. If you rely on those for success, you’re in a fragile place!
by Simon Hartley www.be-world-class.com
Hartley, S.R. (2011) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.
Hartley, S.R.(2011a) ‘Pressure…What Pressure: Athletes in Sport’, Podium Sports Journal, February2nd 2011. Available online. HTTP: <http://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2011/02/02/pressure%E2%80%A6what-pressure-athletes-in-sport/> . Accessed 20th June 2011.
Hartley, S.R. (2011b) ‘Motivation in Sports: Discovering Your Reason’, Podium Sports Journal, June 5th 2011. Available online. HTTP: < http://www.podiumsportsjournal.com/2011/06/05/motivation-in-sport-discovering-your-reason/>. Accessed 20th June 2011.
Lindsley, D.H., Brass, D.J. and Thomas, J.B. (1995) ‘Efficacy-Performance Spirals: A Multilevel Perspective’, Academy of Management Review, 20(3), 645-678.