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Coping with Sports Injuries: Psychological Strategies for Rehabilitation

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

So, you've just gotten injured and you're ruled out of your sport for what feels like forever. You've got a rehabilitation programme ahead of you that you know you need to do, but you're frustrated that it will be repetitive and boring, taking time away from you to work on getting better. Injury is one of the most mentally challenging experiences for an athlete, as something you have very little control over suddenly stops you from doing the thing that's most important to you. So, it's important to know some psychological strategies for injury rehabilitation, which you'll be glad to know is what this blog is all about.

Injured footballer lying on the ground in pain

Athletes' mental and behavioural responses to injuries have been shown to impact whether rehabilitation and recovery are successful or less successful. As a result, it would make sense that athletes who take the required actions and learn mental skills to prepare themselves for the challenges that lie ahead in their rehabilitation are in a better position to overcome them. The problem is, if you're an athlete that doesn't possess the mental tools for coping with sport injury, you might find it difficult to follow your rehabilitation programme when challenging thoughts and feelings come up. These thoughts and feelings might be related to your injury, your future in sport, your rehabilitation programme, or others around you, and they can impact your motivation and confidence in your ability to recover. This can leak into your behaviour around your rehabilitation, leading to either over or undertraining in your rehab programme.

Psychological Reasons for Overtraining in Your Rehabilitation from Injury

Simply put, you might overtrain your rehabilitation programme because you don't feel like the sessions are physically hard enough. You've gone from intense training sessions where you leave soaked in sweat and fatigued all over to barely breaking a sweat. Your mind might be telling you, "This can't possibly be enough work", or, "You're going to fall behind everyone training like this", alongside having feelings of doubt and frustration over the lack of intense training. These thoughts and feelings are completely normal and valid, but it's important to remember that your physio has designed your rehab programme to recover your injury, not train you for competition. But, this is easier said than done, and without mental tools to manage those inevitable thoughts and feelings you can end up avoiding them by engaging in ways you believe can get rid of them. In this case, you do more work than your physio recommends to 'outwork' your feelings of doubt and frustration. However, you actually end up running the risk of your injury getting worse. The exact opposite outcome of your goal to recover!

Psychological Reasons for Undertraining in Your Rehabilitation from Injury

Similarly to how they may cause you to overtrain, those difficult thoughts and feelings of yours can also impact your behaviour in the opposite way - undertraining. Sport injury rehabilitation can be a repetitive process that athletes find boring and unenjoyable. When we don't find something enjoyable, our motivation goes from being more intrinsic (doing something because you love/enjoy it) towards more extrinsic forms of motivation (e.g., you value the outcome of doing the behaviour, you feel guilty if you don't do it, there's a reward or punishment involved). Extrinsic forms of motivation are not as strong as more intrinsic forms of motivation, and so, more extrinsic motivation towards rehabilitation is more likely to lead to decreased engagement with the exercises in the programme when those extrinsic rewards run out. Another psychological factor shown to be negatively affected following injury is your confidence. In this case, your belief in your ability to recover from your injury and your belief that your rehabilitation programme will lead you to a full recovery. Your confidence is intertwined with your motivation. You're more likely to feel motivated to follow your rehabilitation programme if you believe in the effectiveness of your rehab programme and in your ability to perform the sessions as they need to be performed to make a full recovery. A lack of confidence in yourself or the rehabilitation programme is likely to go hand in hand with a lack of quality motivation and places mental barriers in the way of you meeting the requirements of your recovery programme.

As you can see, aspects of your mindset can put barriers in the way of a successful recovery from injury, IF you don't have the mental tools to manage these issues. Luckily, there are a variety of ways to approach these issues in mindset training, targeting different aspects such as your thoughts, feelings, and psychological traits such as confidence and motivation to give you the tools to cope and experience a successful recovery from injury.

Psychological demands of injury in sport visual


5 Psychological Strategies for Injury Rehabilitation

1) 'Accept' Difficult Feelings

Doubt. Uncertainty. Disappointment. Frustration. Boredom. These are all completely normal and valid feelings to experience when injured and going through rehabilitation. Whilst it might be tempting to try and avoid them being there, the behaviours you do to avoid them could be holding back your progress long term. Doing extra work on top of your rehab programme might get rid of those feelings of doubt and frustration over not training enough, but long term it could cause your injury to get worse. Not performing your rehab exercises at home might avoid the feeling of boredom you get whilst you do them, but it will slow down your recovery.

If your goal is to recover from your injury, which I'm sure it is, then difficult feelings are almost definitely going to be a part of that process. So, it might help to be open to them and make room for them inside you. This is called acceptance. Through practicing acceptance of difficult feelings, you can learn to allow difficult feelings to be there instead of trying to avoid them. This prevents them from influencing your behaviour in a way that takes you away from being the athlete you want to be. For an example of one way to practice acceptance, head over to my blog on 'emotion surfing', a technique we use to allow your feelings to build, peak, and fall without being swept away by them.

2) Connect with Your 'Why'

Whilst your feelings of motivation may go up and down, the reason why you believe you should follow your rehabilitation programme is likely to be more stable. Your 'why' is the connection you have to what matters to you overall. Why is it important to you to follow your rehabilitation programme and recover from your injury? What does that lead to in the long term that you believe will give you satisfaction in your life? If you think of your drive to engage in your rehabilitation as a fire, connecting to your 'why' provides you with consistent kindling to keep it going. Losing connection with what matters to you will turn your brain towards the pain - the difficult feelings that are a part of the rehabilitation process. These feelings pull you towards behaviours that take you away from being the athlete you want to be in the long term, 'relieving' you of the difficult feelings temporarily. So, explore your 'why' and keep it somewhere you will see it often, such as your phone wallpaper or water bottle. Doing this reframes your view of difficult feelings as a worthwhile part of your journey towards what matters to you.

3) Goal Setting

It's likely that your pre-injury goals didn't account for you getting injured. As a result, you need to weigh up whether those goals are still realistic in the time frame you aimed to achieve them in. If the answer is no, you likely need to re-evaluate them. As injury rehabilitation can be slow and boring for athletes, an outcome goal such as, "I want to fully recover from my injury and return to competing in my sport", could be quite a distant achievement. This is where process goals are your best friend. Process goals are made up of the smaller, shorter-term steps you need to take to reach your long-term outcome goal. If you only focus on the outcome goal, you only feel a sense of progress and accomplishment when that goal is completed, which could be far down the line in your recovery. Through setting and achieving short-term process goals, you give yourself small wins along the way that motivate you to continue on your journey and give you evidence of measurable progress.

4) Creatively Connect with What's Important to You

Injury is cruel, and it can disconnect you from things you value and enjoy doing as an athlete. A common example of this is when athletes can no longer train with their teammates due to their injury and have to do separate sessions alone with the physio. For athletes that really value the social relationships that they have with their teammates, this can be a really challenging aspect of injury. So, it can be a helpful coping strategy to think of creative ways that you can still connect with the aspects of your sport and life that you value. For example, if you value social connection with your teammates, you might still be able to connect with that value by watching training sessions, making sure you attend team meetings, or organising social events with teammates away from training. If you're an athlete that values leadership when you play, you may be able to contact that value by encouraging your teammates from the sideline. Whilst this is unlikely to provide you with the same level of satisfaction, it can create more connection with what's important to you than you would have otherwise, making rehabilitation more manageable mentally.

5) Tap Into Your Sources of Confidence

As I've already mentioned, your confidence can take a hit when you get injured. To increase your confidence you need to tap into the main sources that athletes get it from. For an athlete recovering from injury, key sources of confidence would be performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, and verbal persuasion.

You can tap into the performance accomplishments source by making progress in your recovery. You can tie this into achieving your process goals, sourcing confidence from completing a goal to perform the exercises in your rehab programme with a higher weight than the last session, for example. Vicarious experience is where we gain confidence from seeing or hearing about other people achieve the same thing as we are trying to achieve. For an injury, you might research stories of athletes successfully recovering from the same injury as you, gaining belief from the fact that they were able to do it, so you can as well. Lastly, you can increase your confidence in your ability to recover through the encouragement and words of supportive people in your circle, such as your family, friends, physio, or sport psychologist, as well as using self-talk to affirm your own belief during rehabilitation.


The process of recovering from injury as an athlete can be a long one, full of ups and downs. But those challenges don't have to prevent you from doing the things you know will lead you towards recovery and competing again. By learning and applying some of the mental strategies in this blog, you can be equipped with the tools you need to manage your mind as best as possible to get yourself through the rollercoaster ride of injury recovery.

If you're struggling with the mental challenges that come with an injury in sport, our mindset training packages can help you learn strategies to manage those demands and focus on what you need to do to recover. Book a FREE 20-minute enquiry call here, or, get in touch via Whatsapp at 07950378048 or by emailing Take the first step in building a challenger mindset today!



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