Sports psychologist play a vital role within the lives of athletes. Apart from enhancing the athlete’s performance during sports and help improve their overall wellbeing; they also work with the athlete’s family, coach and team so as to maintain the psychological needs of the athlete (Dosil, 2006). However, gaining acceptance amongst coaches and athletes themselves may not be so simple for the sports psychologist; especially if coaches or families refuse to work with them (Speed, Anderson & Simons, 2005; Nicholls & Jones, 2013). It is common for athletes to experience some sort of mental letdown at some point throughout their sporting career (Weinberg & Gould, 2018). Hence within this particular period, it is crucial for athletes to seek guidance from a sports psychologist in order to learn how to cope and overcome such letdowns.
John, a young professional volleyball athlete, accidently twisted his ankle while dodging the ball during one of his training sessions causing a severe ankle sprain injury. Such an injury occurs when the rigid part of the ligaments are stretched beyond their capacity leading them to tear and thus, become injured (Shatto, 2017). Ever since then, John experienced some swelling and pain in his ankle. Despite this, he was mostly disappointed because he could not participate within his upcoming competition, due to being in recovery for a whole month. Even tough the swelling and pain eventually decreased, he was still unable to perform since the injured ankle was still not as stable (Hertel, 2013; Shatto, 2017). During that same time John got injured, he was also undergoing University examinations.
A sports psychologist conducted a semi-structured interview with John after the injury occurred. This was done so that the injury could be understood from John’s perspective and discover how such an incident affected him psychologically. Also, by conducting the interview, the sports psychologist was able to diagnose John and provide him with the necessary interventions required for a steady recovery (Mulligan, 2012).
Briefly, amongst the questions asked the following were some of them (i) how do you feel now that you have stopped training for a while; (ii) how are you spending your free time instead of training and; (iii) what are your plans for after recovery? The subsequent diagnosis, presented in the paragraphs below, was concluded from the interview.
Additionally, the sports psychologist acknowledged the pain John was experiencing in his ankle. Even tough the psychologist cannot feel or fully relate to what he was feeling, talking about it helps address the kind of treatment that is required for recovery. The psychologist asked John questions relating to: (i) describing where the pain is in depth; (ii) specifying how long he has been in pain; and (iii) explaining what led to such pain (Milgrom, 2002; Fertman, 2009; Shatto, 2017).
One of the symptoms John seems to be experiencing is lose of identity. It is common for athletes to link their identity to the sport they play (Brewer & Petitpas, 2005). Before he got injured John used to play as an opposite hitter, i.e. an attacker, in volleyball. Now that he is injured and has stopped playing for a while, he feels like he no longer fits into that particular role and thinks that he no longer has something to offer (Arvinen-Barrow & Walker, 2013; Haggerstone, 2013). In fact, during the interview John stated that he had been feeling off-track. John had gotten used to training for hours everyday and now he does not know how he should be spending his free time. The fact that he temporarily cannot play made him loose his daily routine and sense of purpose thus, left him feeling lost. Additionally, he is also undergoing loneliness. He used to see his coach and team mates regularly during training sessions, and so he misses hanging out with them.
Furthermore, John is also going through a decline in self-esteem and confidence. When John was asked about his plans for after recovery, he replied by saying that he was still unsure about whether or not he was going to go back to playing volleyball. He seems to believe that he is no longer capable of playing with such a professional team and thinks that he has let down his coach and team mates. That being so, he feared that they would replace him on the team (Kuehl, 2014). Besides that, he continuously doubted his recovery and kept saying that he will never be able to play again like he used to before.
The sports psychologist noticed another symptom in John, that of anxiousness. When John finally accepted his injury he became rather anxious due to the fact that, he realised how hard and long of a process it was going to be to return to volleyball. The idea of going back to sports scared him as he feared of getting re-injured.
Nonetheless, he was also aware that he might still feel some discomfort with his ankle in the future and so, might need to change some ways of living (Cartwright & Pitney, 2011).
The sport’s psychologist uses a particular process when dealing with an injured athlete like John. First, the psychologist starts by building trust and rapport with the athlete. John is experiencing a range of emotions like, loneliness and fear. By listening to him, the psychologist is able to monitor John’s emotional state while making him feel important and understood. Then, the psychologist educates John about the injury. It is crucial that he has the right information about his ankle sprain injury and that he is thought proper ways of how to handle it (Fertman, 2009; Taylor, 2015). For example, at first it was hard for John to understand that he could only apply force on one of his ankles while walking; however, by time his brain started functioning in that manner on its own. Later, the psychologist moves to the skill development phase in which John is given necessary interventions required for a steady recovery. These are discussed in the upcoming section below. Lastly, the psychologist moves to the final stage, that being the practice and evaluation phase. During this stage, John applies the interventions to his rehabilitation and the psychologist monitors his daily progress (Brewer & Petitpas, 2005; Pfeiffer, Mangus, & Trowbridge, 2015).
The first intervention suggested by the sports psychologist was relaxation training. This is aimed at reducing stress that the athletes feel while they are trying to overcome pain due to an injury and recovery (Kornspan, 2009). John was encouraged to try progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) which involves in tightening and relaxing the muscles of the body from head to toe, usually starting from the face. By making the muscles tense, they feel more relaxed once released thus letting go of the physical tension (Kate, 2016; Scott, 2018; Quinn, 2019). This exercise will hopefully help John calm down when feeling anxious. He experienced anxiousness when thinking about his process of recovery and when he anticipated going back to volleyball, as he feared getting re-injured. John was advised to try this exercise whenever he feels anxious, for approximately 15 minutes.
Secondly, the sports psychologist also recommended positive self-talk and goal-setting as interventions (Arvinen-Barrow & Walker, 2013). The former, helps athletes become aware of their negative thoughts and teaches them how to portray themselves in a positive manner. In John’s case, he kept rumbling about how much his ankle hurts and doubting himself as well as, his recovery. The sports psychologist replaced these negative thoughts with more positive ones by reminding him about how lucky he is to have knowledgeable people helping him recover (Kornspan, 2009). This was practiced during every psychological session John had. The psychologist encouraged him to keep attending team meetings so that he could still feel a part of the team, which removes some of his worries about getting replaced and decreases his feelings of loneliness (Fertman, 2009).
The latter, involved creating realistic and progressive short-term and long-term goals (Delforge, 2002; Knight & Draper, 2008; Kornspan, 2009). The short-term goals John aimed for were practised from the first till the second week of his injury. It involved protecting and resting his ankle to prevent further injuries or swelling. This was done by using crutches to walk and applying ice on his ankle daily (Fermelis, 2017). On the other hand, the long-term goal involved encouraging motion and was practiced during the last two weeks of his recovery, up till the present. Such motion was exercised by ankle pumps. The exercise involves lying supine, with both ankles slightly elevated off the end of his bed and then moving them slowly in a pain free range of planter flexion. This not only avoids stiffness but also helps enhance John’s performance post-injury (Dubin, Comeau, McClelland, Dubin & Ferrel, 2011). Additionally, this intervention also aids in reducing John’s anxiousness since having a set of goals keeps him focused and motivated towards recovering while, giving him a sense of purpose and making him forget about the other things, such as worries about re-injury, that led to his anxiousness (Malone, Fox & Mulvey, 2008).
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- Kimberley Bartolo (Author), 2019, Mental Letdowns in Sports Psychology, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/501529