The mental and emotional impact of sports injuries and its effect on performance is largely overlooked in professional sports. Of course the physical consequences are taken very seriously and huge resources are spent on the players´ physical recuperation. However, the full impact is generally passed by even though it is well recognised. This is probably because up until now coaches and sports professionals haven´t known how to resolve the mental and emotional impact of sports injuries, nor the changes in performance. In addition, talking about psychological or emotional difficulties has been largely taboo in sport.
What is the mental and emotional impact of sports injuries?
In summary an injury creates a conflict in your brain body coordination. This is a neuro-physiological conflict. It also leads to micro flaws in concentration and in some cases to anxiety, depression, invasive thoughts…
The deeper parts of your brain are the limbic system and the reptilian brain. Their functions include storing all your experiences and creating neural pathways which keep you safe and out of danger. They are also responsible for all your muscle movements. They act beyond your awareness and beyond your control. They are automatic reactions.
After an injury, these unconscious parts of your brain record that anything similar to the situation that led to your injury as being unsafe. Therefore, they will automatically move your muscles to avoid them. Remember they will do so automatically, before you have had time to think about it and the thinking part of the brain is powerless to stop it.
Of course your neocortex, the thinking part of your brain is giving the order to keep moving forward. Here you have the conflict. This part is telling you to keep moving and the deeper part of the brain is pulling your muscles back. In many cases this in itself leads to further injuries.
Now this all sounds very dramatic. It is true that in some cases it creates “yips” (or the loss of fine motor skills) which are dramatic for any sports person. However, in most cases it shows up as micro muscle and psychological changes which look like the player has simply lost his or her edge physically, psychologically and emotionally. They miss shots that they would have pinned in the past. Just a change of 2 or 3 millimetres in the movement of your hand or foot, for example, translates into centimetres when the ball reaches its destination. This is the difference between a hit or a miss.
Let me give you an example of a professional basketball player who came to me after his 2 point shot accuracy had plummeted to 23%. This occurred after falling as he came down from a jump shot. In fact, he hadn´t nailed a jump shot since. He jumped about 2mm too far forward and as hard as he tried to rectify it, nothing worked.
He explained the anguish he felt and the flashbacks that he would have on court. They were the sound of the bone breaking, the pain and the instant gripping fear of its impact on his professional career.
After the sessions with me, he described how the injury had faded back into the past. He felt totally relaxed on court and the flashbacks had completely gone. His accuracy immediately came back up to 50%.
What is going on in your brain?
As far as the latest neuro-scientific research has been able to establish the physiological process is the following:
In the moment of the injury the brain disconnects the neocortex in order to go into survival mode. It does so through the production of cortisol. It does this because the neocortex works much slower than the reptilian brain and the limbic system and in survival situations it´s slowness actually puts us in greater danger.
In the cases where a player is unable to recover psychologically from the injury, the same thing occurs every time something stimulates their memory of the injury. This phenomenon has several causes:
- The pressures and therefore emotional impact of the injury (will I play again, is my career over, how will the club respond…)
- The severity of the injury
- The brain responds to it as another link in a chain of injuries.
Part of the function of the neocortex is to make sense of our experiences govern how they are stored in our memory. The brain functions through radiant neural connections. The neocortex governs how to connect our experiences together so that our unconscious responses are to our greatest benefit.
This means that when we have a cortisol reaction to a past experience and the neocortex is disconnected, we never have the chance to make sense of the experience and to store it properly in the brain. It is as if it becomes trapped in a time capsule in the limbic system. Every time something occurs that reminds our brain of the experience, once again the neocortex disconnects and it is as if we are back there living it again.
How can we recognise when this is occurring? It is simple to recognise because of the types of thoughts you have and because you have a cortisol emotional response. Cortisol produces the following responses:
- Difficulty in sleeping or poorer quality sleep
- Stomach tension, anguish, difficulties in digesting…
The thoughts you have can be varied and can include invasive thoughts, obsessive or compulsive thoughts and flashbacks. It is as if you are living the experience again emotionally and physically.
How the negative impact of sports injuries is compounded
In itself this is a tremendously difficult to cope with, however, it becomes compounded because of the high demands and pressures of professional sport.
Nearly all sports people that I have worked with begin to demand more of themselves, confused and frustrated about what is happening to them. In many cases they train harder and longer which leads to a circle of frustration and self-blame, greater anxiety and sadly in too many cases to depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and a collapse in self-esteem.
One of the clearest cases that I have worked with was with a professional basketball player who had experienced 3 seasons of injuries. In fact he had suffered 4 serious injuries in that time.
By the time another client who had successfully work with me recommended that he come to see me, he was suffering from OCD related to every muscle sensation in his legs. In was compounded because it completely interfered with his concentration in the game, especially if the obsessive thoughts were trigged by a sensation from the previous days training.
We worked together for about a month during which time the obsessive thoughts disappeared completely, he rediscovered the freedom that he had felt as a child playing basketball and he found a new union between his mind and his body. He began the season in third division and during the first weeks after our work together he was scouted for and contracted by the leader of the first division teams.
How to solve the mental and emotional impact of sports injuries
The good news is that there is a road home!
There are a number of highly leading edge techniques that enable sports people to reset their nervous system to its pre-injury state. In fact, in many cases their performance actually increases because the experience becomes installed as learning and improved judgement. In addition through the experience they can learn to return to their joy of their sport.
In most cases I have found that relaxation and visualisation techniques are not enough to resolve the psychological effect of the injury. They are useful to help the sports person to cope better. However, they do not enable them to resolve the automatic micro-muscle responses which occur in the game, nor the strongest of the psycho-emotional impacts.
In order to really solve the difficulty it is necessary to work much deeper. I use a variety of techniques, selected and developed over many years. Some of them enable the sportsperson to connect with how the memories have been stored in their brain, to change the way they are recorded as well as the associations that surround them. This means that their relationship with the memory becomes different and it creates a different emotional reaction.
The other, and for me absolutely essential technique, is to access directly into the limbic system. We can do so using eye positions because the optic nerve connects directly to the brain in this area. One of the most exciting areas of neuro investigation is in how we are able to stimulate memories from the optic nerve. At the same time, through a specially designed system of double attention, bilateral stimulation and vagus nerve relaxation we enable the neocortex to reconnect to the memory. As a result of this reconnection it can resolve the events and store them in an intelligent and useful way.
The result of this work is that the sports person returns to a state of peace, the negative emotional and psychological responses disappear and they feel free to return to the game. For me, their process of recovery is an ideal moment to support the work by showing them how to develop and control high performance and highly positive pyscho-emotional states. We use them to replace the difficult emotions and thoughts that they had been experiencing.
In the end it is curious to discover that the most difficult of circumstances can be opportunities. They are opportunities to open the door to be able to be more at peace, more relaxed, more focussed and with a higher performance than otherwise would have been possible.