For some, the ability to play sports is everything. It is a major source of self-esteem, a constructive way to cope with stress and also a career path. So what happens when an athlete is suddenly sidelined with an injury? An injury hurts mentally as well as physically. In order for an athlete to return to their sport, both sets of scars should be healed.
Nate Roache: A career sidetracked by injury
New Zealand Warriors hooker Nate Roache knows a fair bit about long stints on the sideline due to injury. He debuted for the Warriors in 2016 and since then has played 24 games. A hamstring injury limited his 2017 campaign to just nine games before a torn Achilles Tendon ended his season altogether. Then, in 2018, Roache needed season-ending back surgery.
Despite the heartache of sitting out a huge chunk of the NRL season, he knew that in order to get back out on the field, he needed to trust in the process.
While injuries are something that happens to an athlete physically, a broken leg or ruptured disc in the back can be just as painful mentally. Mental doubts can creep in throughout the recovery process. From the initial sadness over missing out on game-day to returning to the sport and worrying about re-injury. That is why it is important to consider psychological wellbeing in the recovery process.
If the injury is so significant that you are sidelined for a long period of time, there is a danger of losing your identity as an athlete. However, if you want to speed up the recovery process, a big part is learning to expect certain feelings as a natural part of successfully coping.
Healthy mental coping strategies for athletes range from being sad and dealing with it, to setting new realistic goals and continuing to work out. While you may be injured, if you can work out the non-injured parts of your body, you’re sending a message to your brain that you’re still strong and capable.
Roache says: “Patience is a big thing for me. Going through all these injuries I learned through all of them, just to take my time and get back when I’m really 100%. I just take it slow and listen to my body.”
As your body goes through the rehabilitation process and putting in place rehab goals, don’t forget that keeping yourself mentally tough goes a long way in achieving and even speeding up recovery.
There are a lot of steps to physically recovering from an injury. In order to get on the right track, athletes need an accurate diagnosis, options for treatment, a rehabilitation plan and a return to sport plan.
The Vodafone Warriors’ Head of Physio Luke Wilson says, “In order to encourage healing of tissue, we have to find a level of work that will challenge the tissue’s current capacity. Pain does not mean damage, it is a warning from the brain that the tissue may be at risk of damage.”
Sometimes in the case of athletes, surgeons will decide to operate on the injury in order to start the recovery process and get the athlete back to work quicker. During the recovery process, a lot of questions need to be considered. Will playing make the condition worse? Is there a higher risk of future injury? What is the effect of the treatment? Obviously, an athlete will want to do all they can to return to their sport, but they need to determine at what cost.
The Vodafone Warriors’ Nate Roache says, “I think I’ve had maybe six operations, on pretty big, serious injuries. I’ve had a lot of practice. Just trusted the people that are given to me, my physios, the surgeons and just listen to all the advice they give me.”
At the end of the day, physical recovery is about pain management, re-learning coordination and building strength and endurance in order to return to sport. Be it through a rehabilitation program or surgical plan, athletes need to be physically tough in order to get through the pain and return to pre-injury function.
The road to physical recovery can be a long one. However, staying on top of your injury, maintaining fitness while injured and trusting in the rehab process goes a long way towards optimising and speeding up the recovery process. Doing the simple things like regaining range of motion and strength and using discomfort as a guide helps give the injury the best chance to recover.
Returning to sport
The Vodafone Warriors’ Head of Physio Luke Wilson adds that the risks of training with an injury are the same as training without an injury. “If you exercise with poor technique, or at levels your body/injury is not prepared for you will get (re)injured.”
At the end of the difficult recovery road is a return to sport. When you are practising hard without any significant difficulty and the healing has progressed to a point where re-injury is unlikely, then you are ready to train. If your normal range of motion is back and there is a decrease to near zero amounts of pain and swelling, along with an 80-100% return of balance and coordination, you are ready to go.
Getting injured can be overwhelming, your body has failed you and your thoughts are running wild. The process is hard and long, but with a little trust, a positive attitude and a sound rehab plan, you can return to play again.