A mind is a terrible thing to waste.
Your mind can be a fascinating, and oft-times infuriating, thing. Your mind will convince you that you’re better at something than you are which leads to utter and bitter disappoint when you’re proven wrong. (*cough* Watching footage of yourself. *cough*) Your mind will even convince you that you’re not as good at some things as you actually are leading you to hide your light under a bushel.
Or whatever that saying is.
But, as an athlete, your mind is never more dastardly than when it convinces you that you’re still capable of your former glory post-injury.
Listen, this isn’t Debbie Downer shit. I’m not telling you that you’ll never be good again.
You CAN return to a high level of skill.
You CAN come back stronger and better than before.
You absolutely CAN.
What I am telling you is this: Your mind is trying to fuck you over. So stop letting it take the lead.
• • • •
Any time you actively pursue the growth of a skill, you’re re-training your brain. Regardless of whether that skill is mental or physical, your brain creates the connections that allow you to make use of the skill in a somewhat automatic fashion.
As you build your new skill set, your brain is busy building a mental representation of what that skill represents. The more patterns that you recognize within your skill set, the better your mental representation becomes. And the better your mental representation becomes, the better your mastery over that skill.
In terms of sports:
Your brain catalogs the scenarios and possible outcomes in a game fast enough that your reaction becomes nearly automatic.
Your brain is amazing!
And because you love your sport and are thoroughly bummed when you can’t play it, you continue to train your brain even when your body is injured.
- Do you watch more footage of your sport than you used to? Trying to get your sad, broken heart to feel like it’s back in action.
- Do you attend practice, help out, coach, keep an eye on things? Just to keep one toe in the water for when you return.
- DO YOU DREAM ABOUT WHAT YOU’RE MISSING OUT ON?
That’s your brain. Keeping you in the loop as best it can.
And, as your brain constantly searches for the stimulation to keep building your mental representation of your skill and holding on to the knowledge of the skill that you already have, your body is wasting away.
A bit melodramatic, but technically true.
All of the strength, muscular endurance, flexibility, mobility, and stamina that you’ve built up over the course of your sport is slowly draining out of you like a Dementor trying to suck out your soul.
Again, a bit melodramatic, but technically true.
• • • •
Imagine this scenario:
You’re getting ready to return to the track after 2 months off with a pretty badly sprained ankle. You went to physical therapy. You did all of the exercises. You’ve been cleared for skating and contact.
YOU. ARE. PSYCHED.
Your immediate reaction is to lace your skates up, take the track, and step into your lineup exactly where you left off. After all, you’ve been doing nothing but thinking and dreaming and wishing and hoping and planning for this day to arrive.
Your brain tells you, with 100% certainty, that you are ready.
You are not ready.
All of the physical things you took for granted before you were injured now have to be regained. And just because you got cleared by your physical therapist does not mean you’re ready to jump back in where you left off.
Read that last paragraph again.
A physical therapist is there to tell you when your rehab is complete. Not when you’ve regained the requisite amount of strength/stamina/speed/muscular endurance/cardio endurance/flexibility/etc. to play your sport at 100% again.
Your brain — the one that thinks you’re good-to-go — hasn’t reconciled itself with your body that just spent months on injured reserve. And the fastest way to get injured again is to let your brain take the lead.
• • • •
There’s a gap between where you USED TO BE (which is where your brain currently resides) and where you ACTUALLY ARE (which is where your body is). The gap may be small, it depends on the type of injury, how long you were out, and how long you’ve been playing the game, BUT THE GAP IS THERE.
It breaks my heart to see skaters get caught in the revolving door of injuries because they let their brain call the shots.
Avoid the revolving door.
- Start at the bottom. It’s a humbling experience to have to go back to Fresh Meat Intake or Newbie Practice, but that’s where athletes get made, right? There is probably no better place in your league to rebuild the base levels of strength, stamina, muscular endurance, and straight up muscle memory. That’s what it’s for. Spend some time there. More than one practice. A month is a good starting point.
- Ease back into your training. Not only do you need to ease back into your practices, you need to ease back into your training. The type of training that you were doing at your peak IS NOT the type of training you want to jump back into post-injury. Focus on training that will support your return to basic levels of strength and muscular endurance. Cut back on training days for awhile until everything starts to click and then you can ramp it back up.
- Let YOUR body take the lead. If something feels off at practice or during your training, either with your injured area or elsewhere STOP. Just because you know someone that came back from the same injury in 2 days doesn’t mean that works for you. Tell your ego to fuck off before it gets you hurt. Slow and steady really does win the race.
- Take care of the other stuff. As you ramp back up into practices and training, you need to stay on top of your nutrition, hydration, and sleep. These are things that might have taken a back seat as you were rehabbing because you weren’t dealing with the pressures of practice. They cannot stay in the back seat. Prioritize your self-care!
The idea is to stay focused and close the gap as quickly as possible without opening yourself up to a second injury.
I know, I know. Easier said than done.
But who’s in charge here? YOU or your brain?
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