GUEST POST: “How to Cope with the Impact of Injury on Mental Health, School, and Sports”

By Matthew Flynn, Psy.D. of Peak Mental Performance Coaching, LLC (Winchester, MA)

Original post found here.

With the start of fall, school is fully in session. Fall sport seasons are half way through and winter season tryouts are not that far off. In October, academic demands go up, as teachers are done with review and the “honeymoon” is over. This is a stressful time of year, anxiety is up, and confidence can be tested in a multitude of ways.

Given this pre-existing heightened anxiety level, it is imperative that we are taking care of ourselves, so that if something goes wrong (such as an injury or any negative life event), we are ready. Many injuries I see are quite common including concussions, ligament tears, and pulled muscles just to name a few. Anything that becomes a new stressor can lead to anxiety, depressions, self-esteem struggles, school struggles, and even social or family conflicts. From there, a nasty cycle can start.

However, should an injury (or any negative life event) occur, there are things you can do to mitigate the negative effects and help a person rebound as quickly as possible. Below are a number of recommendations (in no particular order) of what you should do if you face this challenge this year.

1. Injuries can really impact school functioning. It is hard to focus if you are in pain. You might fall behind if you miss days due to injury or doctor appointments, and even walking around school can be a burden. Given these possibilities, it is important for parents to really communicate with the school with what is going on, and ask for any supports that may be necessary for your student to stay on task. This may mean setting up a 504 Plan, including one that supports both academic and physical needs to make school functioning as consistent, predictable, and supportive as possible.

2. Speaking of communication and plans – the same must be true with the coach of the team. Coaches can be impatient and want their players back, and at the same time, most players (particularly high school and college athletes) want to be on the field ASAP. This is when breakdown in communication can occur because of these competing needs, which can only contribute to further injury and more missed time. Parents and players really need to let coaches know about the recovery plan, as well as how they can remain as involved with the team as possible. Being part of the team is essential to protect a person’s mental health.

3. As seen in other blogs, communication with doctors is also needed. Uncertainty with what is going on with an athlete’s body, why they must do a certain rehab routine, or what are appropriate recovery expectations can lead to anxiety. I encourage all clients (and family) to ask questions, be honest, and communicate all feelings and uncertainties to these professionals. Parents: you may need to support your child, as it is often hard for even a teenager to do this, but it will be reassuring to him or her that you have their back.

4. After talking to the doctor, keep as much communication open between family members on how everyone is feeling about the impact of the injury on each of their emotions. There may be disagreements about the process and everyone may have conflicting feelings. Really listen to each other. Parents validate how your child may be feeling, even if you disagree with it – do not minimize their emotions, frustrations, and goals, but at same time, help them to have rational goals for recovery.

5. As much as parents validate, they sometimes need to still “play the parent.” For example, many concussion recovery recommendations include as little technology as possible. These days, telling a teenager to put down the phone can lead to big conflict. However, teenagers are not always understanding the bigger reasons to why they have these limits placed on them. They just do not get it, and at those times, the parent just needs to place firm boundaries even when the teenager gets angry.

6. That being said – teenagers cut your parents (and doctors) some slack. Hopefully you have communicated and understand why you have the recovery plan you do. Recognize that everyone has your best intentions at heart. Sometimes you just have to go with it.

7. As much as you may be frustrated, anxious, or doubting the future – it is important for you, the teenager, to stick to your school plan. Ask for help, take in the support, communicate with teachers, and work in routine. Routines help people manage anxiety/ stress, and takes away the uncertainty of the future.

8. For athletes or students, this is a time to find other outlets, hobbies, activities, or distractions. Any of these can be used in stress and anxiety management.

9. It is hard to keep contact with teammates and friends while recovering from an injury (or any life significant life stressor). It is common for everyone to be there for you at the start, but with time and just their own day-to-day life, friends or teammates can often unintentionally disappear. Given that it is important to be active in seeking out the social support, get out of the house and be with people. Social support is one of most important, if not the most important, factor in mitigating the negative effects of an injury on a person.

10. When all else fails, tell yourself to just keep going. Yes – it is a challenge. Yes – you may feel bad. Allow yourself to feel all the emotions of the grief process, but keep moving forward and the rest will take care of itself.

As you can see, injuries can effect academic, social, and family functioning in many different ways. Sadness, anxiety, and frustrations can be a few of the main emotions that a person can experience. Hopefully, this school year and sport season goes smoothly and positively. Should something negative happen, following many of the aforementioned tips can really reduce the negative consequences of injury on a person’s self-esteem and confidence.

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