Posted January 9, 2017
By Beth Druvenga, M.S. Ed, LAT, ATC
“Sports are 10% physical, 90% mental,” this common phrase used in sports is easily transferred into the world of injury rehabilitation. Sport psychology has started to be incorporated into the sports medicine realm. Athletic Trainers (ATs) are required to participate in some type of psychological or behavioral classes as part of an athletic training program curriculum. Many people have heard of collegiate or professional athletes using psychological techniques such as imagery, stress reduction and positive self-talk as part of their pre-game regimen. They have credited these techniques as helping their game excel, but what if we transferred these techniques into the athletic training facility?
There are some athletes who still feel the stigma of psychosocial help and may not see it as the ATs “place” to employ sport psychology theories into the rehabilitation program.1 However, these interventions have been shown to have positive effects on athlete compliance to rehabilitation programs, better rates of recovery and may help alleviate stress or anxiety.4,3
As ATs, we are put into the unique role, which allows us to control many aspects of the rehabilitation process such as; creating a positive atmosphere, maintaining athlete compliance and providing social support for the injured athlete. We can easily facilitate the discussion with the athlete about how they feel regarding their injury, refer them to another healthcare professional or help them cope with their injury. ATs are on the front lines of student-athlete wellness. Having awareness and knowledge about the psychosocial aspects of the sport allows ATs to take greater care of the athlete, which will hopefully reduce injury recovery time.
Use your tools of the trade! As a professional, it is intrinsic to give our athletes feedback and cues on how to do their exercises correctly. We help set achievable goals in their rehabilitation and lift them up when they’re having a rough day in rehab. All athletes have some part of their identity associated with being an athlete. Being aware of any changes in this identity can be useful for an AT to help in identifying any issue that may appear. These are all subtle psychological interventions!1 Though subtle is sometimes best, there are some more direct ways that can be beneficial to the athlete.
Start by having the athlete write down goals for each week in a journal or on a rehab sheet. The ability to see these goals daily during rehab will ingrain in the athlete’s mind about what they have set out to do for the week and will motivate them to make progress.2 They can acknowledge their goals while doing specific exercises and visibly see their progress written out. Talking with the athlete about their motivation for recovery can also be helpful. By understanding the athletes “why” early in the recovery process, you can help remind them of this “why” during the difficult days.
Add imagery into their program. Imagery is a process which involves three steps: vividness, controllability and self-perception.5 Especially with post-surgical cases and prior to the exercise, have the athlete imagine the muscles they use to do a specific exercise (vividness). After they have done this for a few minutes, have them move on to imagining going through the exercise and completing it successfully and pain free (controllability). Then, after doing this step for a few minutes, finally have the athlete think about a time where they were performing at their best, what emotions they had and what it took for them to feel that way.5 Imagery can be used in pain management as well. Having the athlete view the pain as a “hot” color like red and change it to a “cool” color like blue, which can help reduce pain.6
Teach them positive self-talk. Athletes are quick to get down on themselves if they aren’t performing the task perfectly. Have the athlete use “I can”, or “I will” statements before tackling a tough exercise. This practice will positively engage the brain and give the athlete the boost to achieve their goal. Another way to enhance confidence is to view the setback or injury as a challenge and obstacle to overcome rather than a threat to athletic identity. Changing the perception will help the athlete remain optimistic during a potentially difficult period of life.
Create a peer to peer group.2 A peer to peer group can be led by a sport psychologist or qualified mental skills coach, which can meet to discuss the “boo’s and yay’s” of that day’s session. Athletes need to know they’re not the only one struggling with certain things. When they can dialogue with others in a controlled setting, they may find it beneficial to talk with others going through similar situations. They can also share techniques which have helped them and may help other athletes.
Many ATs do not feel adequately equipped to walk athletes through the psychological aspects of return from injury. If this is the case, search for local sports psychologist or qualified mental skills coach, who work with adolescents or young adults. A great resource is the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, they have information for consultants in your area, as well are plenty of resources on injury/rehabilitation.
In the college/university setting, seek out your psychology or kinesiology professors. They may have an interest in the area of sport psychology and would be willing to provide guidance and expertise. Seek out workshops, lectures and continuing education that touch upon applying psychology into the athletic training facility. As ATs, we are uniquely taught and equipped to handle many different and difficult facets of injury, rehabilitation and return to play. We have an overflowing toolbox, but adding sport psychology training may prove to be a welcome addition.
**Huge thank you to my brother Joel Druvenga, a Master Resilience Trainer-Performance Expert with Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness at Fort Riley Army Base. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, Master of Education in Counseling with an emphasis in Sport Psychology. He is also working toward a Doctor of Education in Kinesiology. He provided me with valuable insight into the realm of sport psychology and utilizing it in the sports medicine world, and added some great edits to this blog post.**
1. Arvinen-Barrow, M., Massey, W. V., & Hemmings, B. (2014). Role of Sport Medicine Professionals in Addressing Psychosocial Aspects of Sport-Injury Rehabilitation: Professional Athletes' Views. Journal of Athletic Training, 764-772.
2. Granito, V. J., Hogan, J. B., & Varnum, L. K. (1995). The Performance Enhancement Group Program: Integrating Sport Psychology and Rehabilitation. Journal of Athletic Training, 328-331.
3. Hamson-Utley, J. J., Martin, S., & Walters, J. (2008). Athletic Trainers' and Physical Therapists' Perceptions of the Effectiveness of Psychological Skills Within Sport Injury Rehabilitation Programs. Journal of Athletic Training, 258-264.
4. Heaney, C. A. (2006). Recommendations for Successfully Integrating Sport Psychology Into Athletic Therapy. Sport Psychology & Counseling, 60-62.
5. Richardson, P. A., & Latuda, L. M. (1995). Therapeutic Imagery and Athletic Injuries. Journal of Athletic Training , 10-12.
6. Taylor, J., & Taylor, S. (1997). Psychological approaches to sports injury rehabilitation. Gaithersburg: Aspen Publishers.
About the Author
Beth Druvenga is an Athletic Trainer currently living in northern Virginia. She has experience working in both a collegiate and high school setting. Druvenga is originally from Iowa where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Athletic Training from Central College in 2012. She graduated from Old Dominion University in 2014 with a Master of Science in Education. Her professional interests include patient-reported outcomes, psychology of injury and rehabilitation as well as using yoga to increase flexibility.