It is said that there are only two certainties in life…death and taxes. In sports, for every team, and for almost every athlete, you can almost count on a third…the probability of injuries. For athletes they are among the most dreaded of fears, worse than a free throw air-ball at a road game. And for those of us who have played the game as well as coached it, we know that the fear is connected to so much more than just the pain. The biggest fear is of the unknowns. Unknowns such as: How long will I be out for? Will I lose my starting spot, or will I lose my place in the rotation and never get it back? Will I no longer feel as much of a part of the team?…will I enjoy the same chemistry with my teammates?….or just feel that I am no longer contributing? And perhaps the worst fear that is connected to some of the slightly longer term injuries such as ACL tears, rotator cuff tears, avulsion fractures and microfracture procedures…..will I ever be the same player again? However, with continued advances in medical technology, injury rehabilitation and therapy, the answer to the last question is often an emphatic ‘YES’…and furthermore, with the right mental toughness framework, the player can often return even BETTER than before.
Mental Toughness & Injuries
Mental toughness in sports is NOT a part-time attribute. It is not just about playing to our potential in the big games when we are at our athletic peak. Mental toughness is also about digging deep when we are not at our best, i.e., when we are in a skills or performance slump, and especially when we are not even able to compete, i.e., when we are injured. One of my life heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King, once said that “the ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but in moments of challenge and controversy.” The truly resilient and mentally tough athlete is one who takes this statement to heart and uses it as a measure of character during those tough times when they are injured and unable to compete. Yet, injuries are not just about challenge…they also involve great opportunity.
A Golden Opportunity
No, this is not a misprint. Nor is it an attempt to sugar-coat an otherwise challenging situation. I believe that injuries provide the athlete with one of the single best opportunities for performance improvement vs. almost any other point in their career. First, injuries allow the mentally tough athlete to work on many other parts of their game that they may not have had as much of an opportunity to work on while healthy. For example, my sophomore year in college seems like centuries ago now, but not so long ago that I do not remember blowing out my knee during pre-season and red shirting the entire year. I was on crutches for many months, but even before I could walk I dedicated myself to strengthening my upper body (of course, following clearance from the trainer). I was a 5ft 8 inch, 172lb point guard when I sustained the injury, and a little over 12 months later, started in the first game of the following season at 192 lbs and 7% body fat. Though I eventually added strength to my lower body as well as my upper body, most of the gains in the first 6 months were to my upper body (especially before I could squat, lunge and run). My overall strength, flexibility, speed, agility and quickness all improved dramatically during the year that I red shirted.
For any athlete, injuries that temporarily decrease mobility also present fantastic opportunities to significantly a number of other non-movement based skills such as free throw accuracy and stationary ball handling (of course, providing the athlete has the medical clearance to work on these skills). A smart, disciplined athlete who is injured may be able to create a number of lofty goals to shoot large sets of daily free throws that far exceed their regular shot frequency while healthy. Though stationary ball handling and free throw practice may not be the most glamorous hoop skills to work on, they guarantee something that certainly is glamorous…the ability to return from injury a much more effective and valuable basketball player. For example, as we all know, a player who can consistently make free throws also sees a great deal more of the ball in clutch situations! The mentally tough athlete can also use this time to study the game in greater depth. Watching game tape from the previous season is an excellent way to watch for trends, improve weaknesses and bolster strengths. A great challenge for the injured athlete is to watch every game from last year, and make notes on the strengths and weaknesses of their performance in each game. What would they have done differently? What would they have done the same? How would they have attacked that offense? What were some of the defensive and offensive strengths and weaknesses of the team during certain possessions? A mentally tough and disciplined player will use injuries to become a much smarter (translation ‘more effective’) player.
Other things to do while injured
The smart and mentally tough athlete who is injured is also watchful of their nutrition intake during this critical time. Exceptional nutrition and correct hydration not only can facilitate a more effective healing process, but a disciplined and watchful nutrition plan may also prevent unnecessary calories from piling on to the body at a time when less daily calories will be burned due to an overall reduction in activity. In short, a mentally tough athlete should not allow injuries to cause a head first dive into an abyss of junk and comfort food! In addition to a sound nutrition program, mental toughness in the midst of injuries means that a player will not retreat into a cocoon of self-pity and self-absorption. Yes, some self-reflection and occasional sadness is certainly normal and natural for any athlete following injury. However, mentally tough athletes use injuries to increase their overall relationship and chemistry with their coach and teammates and not reduce it! The take home message is STAY INVOLVED with the team in every capacity! Working with your coach to become a ‘player-coach’ at times and supporter/encourager at other times takes leadership, maturity, and a truly selfless attitude. This type of attitude reflects a coachable and mentally tough athlete that players and coaches LOVE being around. Think Kevin Garnett during last year’s NBA playoffs and you have a pretty good model. Though his injury at the start of the playoffs was a huge disappointment to both him and the Boston Celtics, Kevin used the injury time to allow his true character and mental toughness to shine through. During those playoffs we witnessed a future hall of famer, constantly encouraging and sharing advice with his teammates. This type of attitude provides great leadership to the team when they need it the most and ensures the chemistry stays very strong with his teammates for the following year.
Risk vs. Reward
Notice that I have not yet discussed anything connected to ‘playing through injuries,’ because I think that 99% of the time, this benefits neither the athlete nor the team. There are some injuries that can only be made worse if they are not given sufficient time to heal. For these injuries, a player who attempts to bravely ‘push through the pain’ may risk losing their season, or worse their career. There is a huge difference between pushing through fatigue with mental toughness (to an extent, to be expected of any tough and talented athletes/teams) and foolishly pushing through the ‘wrong’ type of pain. What constitutes the wrong type of ‘pain’ to push through vs. the right type of ‘pain’ is for each individual athlete to use their own discernment, along with advice from their coach, and especially their medical staff. However, smart coaches, players and trainers usually know which injuries are not serious, and which players seem to routinely and magically appear injured during the toughest conditioning drills and toughest games! The mentally tough athlete is smart, disciplined and resilient when separating feelings of fatigue from serious injury.
Building Confidence and Becoming ‘Better than Before’
I’d like to leave you with a final point that is arguably the most important point of this discussion. Even when the body has fully healed, it is perfectly normal for an athlete to flirt with occasional doubts as to whether ‘he/she is ready,’ either mentally or physically. These doubts are normal even for mentally tough athletes. When bouncing back from an injury, the body often heals before the mind. The process of building confidence and returning to the floor at a level of performance that is even better than pre-injury performance levels, is as much a mental process as it is a physical process. Yes, a smart athlete can and should strengthen an injured area until it can test to a similar level of strength and flexibility to its pre-injured state, but doubts may still occasionally make an appearance. A mentally tough athlete who is about to return to action following the full physical rehabilitation of an injury should both expect and recognize these doubts when they occur. Any doubt should be replaced with a more objective and accurate reminder of current strength levels and performance potential (ie the new improvements to the previously injured area that have been made, have been tested, and have been verified by medical staff). This process of replacing those irrational doubts with a more objective reminder of the new gains in strength, flexibility and functionality is often called ‘taking out the trash.’ For the coaches who currently have a player who is injured, please give them this article. And for the coaches who have a full and healthy roster, hold on to this article in the event it may be useful to one of your players this year. Remind any injured players that the healing process is as much of a mental process as it is a physical process. Encourage them to stay involved with the team, use the opportunity to strengthen relationships on the team, stay disciplined with their rehabilitation and nutrition, and use the opportunity to work on other parts of their game to emerge from injury a new, more effective, and more powerful player.