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Athletes' Mental Strategies Figure in Injury Recoveries

August 06, 1988|GERALD SECOR COUZENS | Gerald Secor Couzens is a New York health writer

Getting injured is part of the active life. It doesn't take much to sprain an ankle, tear cartilage in the knee or develop tendinitis. A successful return to exercise or sport, however, depends not only on physical rehabilitation but on implementation of mental strategies as well.

Instead of running up and down the basketball court at Madison Square Garden, Bill Cartwright, the 7-foot center for the New York Knicks, spent a good portion of three seasons performing rehabilitation exercises. Corrective surgery on Cartwright's fragile foot kept him sidelined from basketball for quite awhile, but Mike Saunders, the Knicks trainer, made sure the injury didn't keep Cartwright from being with his teammates or exclude him from the world of basketball.

Over the years with the Knicks, Saunders has found that many injured players automatically think that because they're hurt and not able to contribute to the team anymore, they're somehow unworthy or not wanted around.

"There's no doubt that athletes get down on themselves psychologically when they're injured," said Saunders. "It's a frustrating, difficult time for them. Since thy can't help the team, they feel that they're useless. A severe injury also puts a big fear in their mind about losing their former abilities, sometimes a fear about not being able to resume their career, and this can really hamper their recovery efforts."

To counteract the feeling of isolation, Saunders has all injured players dress for each practice along with their healthy teammates, and also has them sit at court-side for games. "I've found that just being with the team serves as a good support group for the injured athlete," explained Saunders. "Other players can see him, offer encouragement and also help monitor how his rehabilitation is coming along. This is a big psychological lift to the player."

Recovery from injury is never an easy process, but according to Saunders, it's often much tougher psychologically for the recreational athlete than it is for the pro.

"Even though the pro gets injured and can't compete, at least he's still surrounded by other athletes on a daily basis," he said. "But when the weekend athlete can no longer work out anymore, he's generally completely cut off from exercise. He misses out on the camaraderie and friendship that he used to get from his sport and this can lead to problems such as anger and depression."

Simply being an athletic person is often a plus when it comes to recovery from injury. "Athletes often have an easier time coping with recovery from injury than their non-athletic counterparts," said Todd Snyder, one of the two athletic trainers who travel the world taking care of the players on the men's professional tennis tour.

"Just as a competitive athlete sets goals, works out and then tries to achieve those goals, the same process goes on when an athlete attempts to come back from an injury. By redirecting this competitive, disciplined spirit to their recovery efforts, I've found that they're able to recover much quicker."

Snyder said that unlike many non-athletes, who will only see a physical therapist twice a week because that's all their insurance coverage allows, some athletes will come in twice a day in order to speed their recovery.

Sport psychologists believe a systematic approach that addresses physical and psychological concerns is the best way to recover from injury.

"Managing injury properly is a learned skill just like a sports skill," said Maureen Weiss, an associate professor of physical education with a specialty in sport psychology at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Weiss, a leading researcher in the field of injured athletes, agrees that the mind as well as the body has to be strengthened.

Weiss recommends that in order to best cope with being sidelined, athletes should take specific steps. "In the first, or educational phase, I want the injured person to learn everything that they can about their injury and find out what they can do to help in their recovery from a physical standpoint," said Weiss. Although the person can't participate physically anymore, Weiss also wants him or her to read inspirational stories or biographies about athletes who have succeeded in their sport.

Also, Weiss suggests that in conjunction with a physician or athletic trainer, the athlete set up realistic short-term goals. Once each mini-goal is achieved, whether it be being able to walk without crutches or putting a damaged elbow through a partial range of motion, new goals are set. This process continues until the person is fully recovered.

Only by thinking positively about recovery will progress be made. Because physical pain and accompanying emotional turmoil often hamper recovery, Weiss urges athletes to immediately stop negative self-talk, such as "I've been working hard at rehabilitation for a week and I'm not getting anywhere," and think positive messages, such as "every day I'm getting stronger," or "I won't give up."

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