Getting back on track
Athlete injury: Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels
A back wound from an unforeseen boat crash or a painful overuse rib stress fracture that lingers on for months are unfortunate events that can happen in rowing. The main causes of injury are physical factors such as muscle imbalances, collisions, overtraining, and physical fatigue but psychological factors can also contribute to them. Understanding the psychological reactions to injuries and mental strategies to facilitate recovery can help to support athletes so they optimize healing and a timely return to practice.
Sports psychologists Jean Williams and Mark Andersen in their article, A Model of stress and athletic injury: Prediction and prevention, discuss the relationship between athletic injuries and psychological factors viewed mainly as stress-related. A potentially stressful athletic situation such as a competition, important practice, or a poor performance can contribute to injury depending on the athlete and how threatening the situation is perceived to be. Circumstances felt to be threatening raise anxiety, which cause changes in focus, attention, and muscle tension accordingly increasing the chances of injury. Personality, history of stressors, and coping abilities also influence the stress process and probability of injury. Plus, have power over how much stress the injury causes and the potential for rehabilitation. Competitors who develop psychological skills such as goal setting, imagery, and relaxation may deal better with stress, reducing both their chances of being injured and the stress of injury, should it occur. Overall the evidence suggests that athletes with higher levels of life stress experience more injuries. It is important for coaches to inquire about major life changes and stress in their rowers’ lives so they can monitor or adjust training programs and provide support.
The Stress – Injury Relationship
Two main theories explain the stress-injury relationship. Attentional disruption is the view that stress disrupts an athlete’s attention by reducing peripheral attention. A sculler under great stress may not see an approaching single in his path. If his stress level had been lower he would have a wider field of peripheral vision and would notice the oncoming boat avoiding a collision and potential injury. It is also suggested that an increased state of anxiety causes distraction and irrelevant thoughts. For example, your first boat’s stroke who goes for a run, after being told she will be rowing in the second boat for the next race, might not pay attention to the road and step off a curb, twisting her ankle. Another theory relates to increased muscle tension. High stress is accompanied by a rise in muscle tension that interferes with coordination and increases the risk of injury. To illustrate, at the start of a race a nervous novice sculler in the bow-seat of a quad might experience more muscle tension than desirable, loose control of an oarhandle, catch a crab, and suffer an injury if struck by the oarhandle. Coaches need to be perceptive and watch their team closely. If a team member shows signs of increased muscle tension or unusual attention deficits when performing, it may be wise to lighten training and help initiate stress-management strategies.
Injury can happen because an athlete wants to live up to a slogan such as “No pain, No gain” or “Go hard or go home” and pushes the body beyond acceptable limits. In an effort to be rewarded by the coach, an athlete rows when hurt or takes unnecessary risks. Some athletes believe they must train through pain and “more is always better” but this can result in chronic strains or cases of tendonitis. Hard training involves discomfort, but one needs to distinguish between normal discomfort that is part of overloading or increasing training volume versus the pain that represents the onset of an injury. Some people learn to feel worthless if they are hurt and worry about not being part of the team so they row injured. Athletes should be encouraged to train hard without risking injury and discuss any concerns with their coach.
The emotional responses to injury can include stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance then reorganization.
There are three general categories of responses. The first is referred to as injury-relevant information processing. Shortly, the injured one focuses on such information as pain, the extent of the injury, questions about how it happened, and the negative consequences. The second is emotional upheaval and reactive behavior. Once the individual realizes he is injured, he may be agitated, feel depleted, experience isolation, disbelief, denial, or self-pity. The third is a positive outlook and optimistic coping. One accepts the injury, deals with it, shows a good attitude, and wants to see progress in recovery. Other psychological reactions adding to the complexity of recovery includes identity loss that can seriously affect self-concept, fear and anxiety with worry whether they will recover or be replaced because they are not at practice, lack of confidence because of the inability to participate or due to inferior performances while recovering because of missed practice time.
When recovery does not go smoothly
Setbacks are common during recovery. Sharing feelings with others is an important source of social support as is talking to seasoned athletes who experienced a similar injury and then successfully returned to full activity. In rehabilitation, attitude, life outlook, stress control, social support, positive self-talk, healing imagery, goal setting, and beliefs are important. Fast-healing athletes tend to use more goal setting, positive self-talk and healing imagery than slow-healing athletes suggesting the importance of psychological techniques in treatment. Goal setting can include setting a date to return to competition, planning the number of treatments each week, and the structure of each session. Self-talk strategies help an athlete stay positive and stick to the treatment program with confidence that he will return to the team. If you cannot row, visualization can be used to focus on the details of your stroke and your future race plan, or to improve healing to the injured area. Spend time in the coaches’ launch observing or assist at practices. Most importantly stay involved with your team and in an active environment that inspires you to get back into action as soon as possible.
Marlene Royle, RoyleRow and Masters Rowing Coach.
Rowperfect resources on rowing injury
- Managing and avoiding lower back injury ebook
- Guidance for coaches on using ergos and avoiding back injury by Ivan Hooper
- Kinesiology tape for strapping injured limbs – for sale in Rowperfect shop
- Rowing injury prevention tips series by Strength Coach Roundtable
- Low back pain in Rowers
- Injury Prevention podcast with Strength Coach Roundtable