How to Cope With a Sports Injury

Man putting some ointment on a woman's shoulder

Bambu Productions / Getty Images

Sports injury recovery typically focuses on physical rehab, but it's also important to include sports psychology techniques to help recover mentally. That's because athletes can experience a wide range of emotions with injury, which may include denial, anger, sadness, and even depression.

An injury often seems unfair to anyone who has been physically active and otherwise healthy. Coping with the stress of an injury requires both physical and psychological resilience.

Although these feelings are real, it’s important to move beyond the negative and find more positive strategies to cope with this setback. Dealing gracefully with an injury helps an athlete become more focused, flexible, and resilient. These seven sports psychology strategies can help.

Learn About Your Injury

The more you know about the cause, treatment, and prevention of your injury, the less fear or anxiety you experience. Ask the following questions of your doctor, trainer, coach, or therapist to learn what you can do to heal quickly and fully:

  • What is my diagnosis (what type of injury do I have)?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • What is the purpose of the treatments I am receiving?
  • How long will recovery take?
  • What should I expect during rehab?
  • What alternative workouts can I do safely?
  • What are warning signs that I may be getting worse?

If you are uncomfortable with any of your care team's responses, you may want to get a second opinion, especially if surgery is recommended.

Take Responsibility for Your Recovery

Instead of focusing on your decreased performance, it can be more beneficial to simply accept that you have an injury. This helps you take responsibility for your recovery, which can change your outcome.

By taking responsibility for your recovery process, you can find a greater sense of confidence. It also helps you to progress in your recovery rather than pushing yourself to perform at your pre-injury level.

Stay Committed to Treatment

Some people are highly motivated and work extra hard to get back in the game while others get discouraged and slack off on therapy. To heal quickly, be committed to overcoming your injury by showing up for your treatments, and listen and do what your doctor and/or athletic trainer recommend.

Setting small daily or weekly goals that build momentum can help you stay balanced as you reach your end goal of healing. Your self-talk is important too. To get the most out of your daily rehab, work hard and maintain a positive attitude. Remain focused on what you need to do, not what you are missing out on.

Use Your Mind to Heal Your Body

Growing research shows that it may be possible to speed up the healing process by using mental skills and techniques such as imagery and self-hypnosis. Imagery uses all of the senses to create mental images, feelings, and sensations as though the desired outcome is happening now or has already happened.

Get Support

A common response after an injury is to isolate from teammates, coaches, and friends. Yet, it's important to maintain contact with others as you recover. They can listen when you need to vent or offer advice or encouragement during the rehab process.

Surround yourself with positive people and others who can cheer you on as you recover and boost your spirits when you are feeling discouraged. Just knowing you don't have to face the injury alone can be a tremendous comfort.

Go to practice. Hang out around the locker room and the weight room. Be visible by being an active member of the group.

Set Appropriate Goals

Just because you are injured doesn't mean you stop planning or setting goals. Rather than viewing the injury as a crisis, make it another training challenge. Your goals will now focus on recovery rather than performance. This will help keep you motivated.

By monitoring your goals, you will also be able to notice small improvements in the rehab of your injury. You will feel more confident that you are getting better and improving.

Remember to work closely with your therapist or doctor. They can help you set realistic goals that are in line with each stage of your rehab. Most athletes have a tendency to try to speed up the recovery by doing too much too soon. It is important to accept that you are injured and know your limits.

Maintain Your Fitness While Injured

Depending upon the type of injury you have, you may be able to modify your training or add alternate forms of training to maintain cardiovascular conditioning or strength. Work with your trainer, therapist, or physician to establish a good alternative workout program. If you can't run, perhaps you can cycle or swim.

Work on relaxation training and flexibility, as well. Create a modified strength training program, do a limited amount of exercise to maintain cardiovascular fitness, or focus on better nutritional health.

A Word From Verywell

With the right knowledge, support, and patience an injury can be overcome without turning your whole world upside down. By taking things slow, setting realistic goals, and maintaining a positive, focused approach, most athletes can overcome minor injuries quickly and major injuries in time. See your doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan for any injury.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Clement D, Granquist MD, Arvinen-barrow MM. Psychosocial aspects of athletic injuries as perceived by athletic trainers. J Athl Train. 2013;48(4):512-21. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-48.3.21

  2. Ivarsson A, Tranaeus U, Johnson U, Stenling A. Negative psychological responses of injury and rehabilitation adherence effects on return to play in competitive athletes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Open Access J Sports Med. 2017;8:27-32. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S112688

  3. Cleveland Clinic. How to Mentally Come Back From a Sports Injury. June 19, 2020.

  4. Muska S. NBC News. What a Physical Injury Taught Me About My Mental Health. October 23, 2017.

  5. Dhillon H, Dhillon S, Dhillon MS. Current Concepts in Sports Injury Rehabilitation. Indian J Orthop. 2017;51(5):529-536. doi:10.4103/ortho.IJOrtho_226_17

  6. Arvinen-barrow M, Clement D, Hamson-utley JJ, et al. Athletes' use of mental skills during sport injury rehabilitation. J Sport Rehabil. 2015;24(2):189-97. doi:10.1123/jsr.2013-0148

  7. Keilani M, Hasenöhrl T, Gartner I, et al. Use of mental techniques for competition and recovery in professional athletes. Wien Klin Wochenschr. 2016;128(9-10):315-9. doi:10.1007/s00508-016-0969-x

  8. Brembo EA, Kapstad H, Van dulmen S, Eide H. Role of self-efficacy and social support in short-term recovery after total hip replacement: a prospective cohort study. Health Qual Life Outcomes. 2017;15(1):68. doi:10.1186/s12955-017-0649-1

  9. Weiss WM. Mentally Preparing Athletes to Return to Play Following Injury. Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

  10. Dawson MA, Hamson-utley JJ, Hansen R, Olpin M. Examining the effectiveness of psychological strategies on physiologic markers: evidence-based suggestions for holistic care of the athlete. J Athl Train. 2014;49(3):331-7. doi:10.4085/1062-6050-49.1.09