If you've ever experienced a sports injury, you're probably familiar with that sinking feeling after hearing a pop followed by a sharp pain. Your mind races as you consider recovery time and the impact it will have on your game. But if the stress and frustration turns into long-term feelings of hopelessness, being upset about your injury could escalate to depression.
Whether you're a professional hockey player, a college gymnast or a recreational basketball player, an injury certainly has the potential to impact your psychological well-being. It's important to recognize why you're feeling down and pay attention to your emotional health, experts say.
John Murray, a clinical sports psychologist based in Palm Beach, Florida, focused his doctoral dissertation on how an injury -- and subsequent social support -- affects an athlete's identity.
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Murray's patients range from junior to professional athletes, and he's seen patients from all levels on the athletic spectrum experience depressive symptoms. Anyone can be affected psychologically, but the more success an athlete has achieved, the more likely he or she might experience depression or feel a lack of self-worth. In other words, an Olympian would be more affected psychologically by an injury than someone who plays pick-up basketball on Saturdays
"The more elite the athlete is, the more identity is ... wrapped up in the athlete role," Murray says. "When they get injured, it's a more devastating blow to them because they're losing something more valuable than a recreational athlete, who might just be doing it for weekend fun."
Professional athletes also might be forced to face issues such as financial stress or the realization that the career they had planned on could be over.
Rebecca Symes, a sports psychologist who runs the sports consultancy Sporting Success in Britain , says the more time and effort the athlete spends on a sport, the greater the psychological impact. "Athletes with a strong athletic identity will define themselves on the basis of their sport -- that is, their sense of worth and self-esteem is wrapped up in their sport, and being successful and associated with being an athlete," she says.
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Depressive symptoms may also stem from the loss of a physical outlet and a change in exercise schedule. Especially for professional athletes, who spent hours every day focused on training and preparation, living with an injury that changes their daily routine is an adjustment.
William Wiener, a sports psychologist in New York City, says athletes who participate in sports with an individual focus, such as tennis or gymnastics, are more at risk psychologically. "Injured athletes on teams can at times be very much a part of the team and remain integrated socially, and feel engaged and invested in their team's success," he says. Meanwhile, athletes in individual sports often have to cope with their injury alone and may be cut from their sport completely while they're recuperating.
Olympic skier Hannah Kearney, who won a gold medal in 2010 and a bronze medal in 2014, has been seriously injured twice during her athletic career. After tearing her ACL in 2007, and suffering internal injuries after a crash while training in Switzerland in 2012, Kearney was able to rebound from her injuries.
"Every single athlete has some sort of physical obstacle in their career, so it's really just a part of the identity. In fact, it sort of solidifies it," she says.
While injuries can be difficult psychologically, Kearney says, there are some benefits to being taken out of the game or off the slopes.
"The fact that I had been doing this sport for the majority of my life, and this was the first time I had had it taken away from me, it made me realize how much I loved the sport, and that was valuable in making me a better athlete, too," Kearney says. "If you're more grateful then you're more likely to enjoy it and appreciate it and work harder."
She advises athletes to focus on other aspects of their life while they are healing.
"I had never put up a Christmas tree, I had not gone to see my brother play hockey very often, so I did both of those things during that time period when I was stuck at home not able to ski. It's up to you how you view the injury and what you make of it," she says. "If you can't get better at your sport at a certain time, then try to get better at other parts of your life."
Strategies for Coping
If you feel like you might be spiraling into a depressed state following an injury, it's crucial to recognize and address the problem. Coping mechanisms should be tailored to the athlete, but experts says there are ways for all athletes to maintain good mental health during the recovery process.
First, both recreational and professional athletes need to follow a regular sleep schedule, eat healthy and adhere to all medical instructions. Murray says a lot of post-injury anxiety stems from fear of re-injury. A medical professional can help ease that anxiety by ensuring the healing process is progressing on schedule.
To overcome depressive symptoms, it's important for professional athletes to establish a sense of greater self-worth and purpose. If the injury was career-ending, recognize that you have other favorable qualities besides being good at your sport. "That's why it's important for athletes to give consideration to post-playing career planning and to have other things in their life aside from their sport," Symes says.
Picking up another sport after the injury might also be an option. Murray says participating in another athletic activity can be a great idea, and trying a different sport has offered some of his patients a competitive and physical outlet. "Golf is a lot less taxing on the body, so if you're playing football and you get a serious knee injury, you might be able to play golf," Murray suggests.
Wiener also says golf can be a great outlet for recreational athletes to cope with losing a sport, though professionals may find it challenging. If someone is accustomed to being the best, starting from scratch can be frustrating -- especially in a less-than-perfect physical state. "That can be very hard for people who are always used to pushing the limit," Wiener says. "Sometimes channeling athletic energy in another direction can be really helpful, and other times, athletes will be too ambitious and sort of force the process."
Psychologists agree that seeking help from athletic peers who have had similar experiences, especially if they've overcome the psychological effects, can be helpful for athletes at all skill levels. And communicating your anxieties to other athletes -- who can assure you that "life goes on" -- can be encouraging.
Like with any kind of emotional distress, it's essential to see a professional who can address your psychological needs with a coping plan. As a sports psychologist, Murray says because he understands the athletic mentality, he can better address his client's needs.
"It's really important, I think that [psychologists] understand the athlete and understand what they're experiencing," Murray says. "That's one of the biggest things that helps being a sports psychologist, as a person who has played sports, who's coached sports, who knows sports, as opposed to somebody else who might not be as sensitive to the potential impact of an injury."