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The psychological side of injury

Frank Reynolds explains the emotional stages an athlete goes through when injured.

As a middle-distance coach, it struck me at one of our Saturday morning workouts that we had more athletes working out that were injured than were not injured. Near the end of the session to my left were 7 or 8 athletes huddling together and nursing sore legs, knees, and ankles. To my right were 5 or 6 healthy athletes finishing off the workout by doing Leg Drills. This is not a good testimonial for a coach who strives to ensure safe workouts that minimize or prevent injuries.

What was going wrong?

Some of the injuries were explainable. A few could be attributed to pushing through the High School Cross Country season by trying to do too much too soon with bodies that were not equipped to handle such workloads. Some injuries were the result of misfortune, a fall, or a twist resulting from a slip.

These injuries were unpredictable and could happen to anyone at any time. But when everything was considered, our group was suffering from the most athletes being injured or under the weather in my whole coaching career.

Oh well, there is a first for everything in life, and this was another first for me. The question was, what could we do about it? Several athletes would be running in the Canadian Cross-Country Championships shortly after this workout. I secretly hoped that by then most would be healed and ready to run.

To ensure that they were, however, we needed to talk about injuries in general and how to deal with them. If these athletes were injured, it would not be the last time they would be, so the sooner they learned the lessons on how to deal with injuries the sooner they would learn how to cope, recover and get back running in the fastest time possible.

How do athletes deal with injury?

An injury can be a traumatic experience for some runners. I say some runners because each runner has a unique personality and because of that will deal with an injury in his or her unique way. I was hoping you would not ask me to explain the way some athletes deal with injuries, because I have no idea why they do what they do, despite the advice of coaches who have had so much more experience both as athletes and coaches in dealing with injuries.

For athletes who are open to accepting an injury and sincerely want to get better and return to running, there are some guiding principles to consider and should be tried when dealing with an injury. If an athlete is not currently injured, they should keep these principles in mind for the future in case he or she is ever faced with one.

To me, dealing with an athletic injury is on a smaller scale similar to the process of dealing with a death, or a significant loss. That is because as athletes, our training schedule, our competitions, our training group, and our coaches shape our very existence. It is a significant and important part of our lives. When this is taken away all of a sudden, many athletes cannot cope and deny that there is anything wrong. The emphasis on certain important competitions or goals that have been set is so powerful as to cause the athlete to think they have to keep going and push through the injury. This only makes things worse, of course.

The 5 emotional phases of injury

As in death, there are five phases that an individual will generally go through until the injury is accepted, and corrective action can take place:

  1. Denial and isolation - the refusal to recognize the injury, and the difficulty of not being able to talk about it to anyone or reject the advice given. The athlete feels alone in his or her struggle.
  2. The second stage is anger, where the athlete feels a need to punish, to get even, to make others hurt as much as he or she does, all of the punitive kinds of reactions are present.
  3. The third stage is bargaining - "I will do anything to get to Toronto"; "Please let me run, I do not want to let the school team down".
  4. The fourth stage is depression - the "all is lost" stage when the feelings of loss and gain are confused. The past looks good, and the future cannot be tolerated. The hurt is intolerable so that the world seems lonely and desolate. "I will miss the competition" - "I will be left behind", "I will never get back in shape". There is nothing to look forward to, this is a bleak stage indeed, but it is a stage.
  5. The final stage is acceptance, which is one of facing the reality of the situation - being willing to deal with this reality, moving on to the future, and making a plan to get better and sticking with it until the injury is healed.

Manage the emotional as well as the physical issues

An injured athlete may spend considerable time in each of the 5 phases or minimal in each one. It depends on the maturity and sensibility of the individual. In our sport, we are faced with a ten year, 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, development program. So an injury early on is not going to have much effect on performances ten years down the road. There is plenty of time to recover and carry on and be a very successful athlete. So the trick is for the athlete to understand what he or she will go through with an injury and to come to acceptance as quickly as possible. Then work with the coaches on dealing with both the psychological and physical issues involved with getting over the injury. Being aware that athletes have these feelings of denial, depression, anger, etc. helps considerably in the process. The feelings are very normal and not to be feared or ignored. By dealing with emotions, using common sense, and wanting to heal an injury, even in the event of an upcoming major competition, the athlete will recover much quicker and be back in action doing what he or she loves and enjoys, which makes sense to me. Hope all athletes dealing with injuries see it the same way.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • REYNOLDS, F. (2005) The psychological side of injury. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 26 / October), p. 1-2

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • REYNOLDS, F. (2005) The psychological side of injury [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Frank Reynolds is a Canadian Level 4 high-performance coach, middle and long distances, working with elite athletes as well as coaching high school athletes with the NorWesters Track and Field Club.