Post-Injury Mental Recovery — PART TWO

(AKA Regaining Your Zazzle Some More)

You’ve come back from your injury. You’ve anticipated the struggle. You’ve taken small bites. You’ve asked for advice from others. And you’ve started to master your skills again.

Master of the Universe!

Master of the Universe!

Now what?

It’s time to focus on your most basic mental skills. Creating actionable steps to strengthen those skills can turn situations that might normally throw you into a tizzy into a piece of cake. Mmmm, cake.

The good news is that these mental skills can be learned*(just like a plow stop!) and research suggests that consistent practice and consistent use of these mental skills can improve athletic performance.**

How can that be?!?

I think we all understand the connections between our thoughts, our emotions, our physical feelings, and our behavior.

{CASE IN POINT: Let’s imagine that you are attempting to do a transition in front of your coaches (situation). You start to feel anxious (mood/feeling) as you begin thinking about the idea of being judged by your coaches: “What will happen if I fall?” (thought). So you start to shake, sweat, and breath more heavily (physical reaction). These physical symptoms affect your balance and form as you attempt the skill. This feeling of panic causes your mind to go “blank” and forget your fundamentals. You lose focus and fall, which then leads to more negative thinking (“I can’t do this…Ill never make the team!”).}

Mental Toughness Grid

Because our thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and behavior all feed off of each other, a change in any one of those areas can affect all of the others. And can ultimately change the situation that you find yourself in.

And this is the key to mental toughness: learning to change one of those variables FOR THE BETTER so that all of the variables can change FOR THE BETTER.

The most basic mental skills help us learn to bring our thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, and/or behaviors under control so we can manage the situation more successfully.

Basic Mental Skill #1: Breathing and Relaxation

When you’re stressed out, your breathing changes into something called “stress breathing” (great name, right?). Stress breathing is shallower and more rapid than your typical breaths. And, because you are breathing much more quickly with a decreased oxygen intake, it has a big affect on your athletic performance — it can deprive the brain and muscles of much needed oxygen.

This form of breathing also affects carbon dioxide (CO2) levels–rapid breathing gets rid of CO2 at a faster rate than the body likes and this can lead to physical symptoms of lightheadedness, tingling, dry mouth, confusion, weakness, etc. (Hyperventilation? Anyone?)

So, learning how to implement appropriate breathing and relaxation techniques cannot only help you regain your composure, but can actually improve your performance overall.  Deep breathing not only helps to slow the mind down, but physiologically leads to a natural sense of calmness.

Below are a few examples of techniques that can help you to stop “stress breathing”. The key is to practice these techniques several times per day even when not in a stressful situation. The techniques become much more automatic with practice and that will increase the likelihood of using them when your “stress breathing” starts.

Patterned Relaxation Breathing:

  • Breathe in through the nose evenly for four counts
  • Hold for seven counts
  • Breathe out through the mouth evenly for eight counts
  • Repeat about eight times (2 minutes total)

Nasal Hyperventilation

  • For 15-20 seconds, take multiple rapid, deep breaths through the nose (2-2.5 seconds per breath)
  • Repeat 3 times
  • Follow by several slow, deep breaths through the mouth
  • Try not to faint, but mild symptoms of hyperventilation are common

Box Breathing

  • Imagine a box
  • Each side of the box represents four seconds
  • Inhale deep through the nose for four seconds, hold for four seconds, exhale deeply through the mouth for four seconds, hold for four seconds
  • Repeat for 3-5 minutes

Basic Mental Skill #2: Positive Self Talk

I’ve talked a little bit before about the inner monologue we keep inside our head. Often, we aren’t even aware of this voice which means that when our inner monologue turns negative it’s difficult to stop.

This voice is an amalgam of our conscious and subconscious beliefs about ourselves, sprinkled with a few dashes of our interactions with others (in this case, think teammates and coaches). This is why it is important for coaches to encourage players verbally and teammates to be supportive when giving feedback—even if critical.

The goal of positive self talk is to change any thoughts with a negative connotation to a more positive one in order to improve performance, mood, or prevent an unwanted physical reaction.

  • Motivational Self Talk:
    • Non-specific task — use generic phrases and instead such as “I can do this” or “hang in there”
    • Specific task — “I need to work hard on my footwork and I will master this skill”
  • Instructional Self Talk:
    • Using a short, motivational phrase before or during performing a skill in order to gain focus and get in the zone.
    • For example, while running up a hill during a race, saying in your head “up…hill….up….hill” with each stride in the rhythm needed for pace. A baseball player saying “eye on the ball” right before swinging, or even just saying a phrase like “breath.”
  • Negative self talk
    • self-demeaning, counterproductive and anxiety provoking

Techniques to Improving Self-Talk:

  1. Keep phrases short and specific.
  2. Use first person and present tense.
  3. Construct positive phrases—avoid saying “don’t” or using a negative. For instance, saying “don’t miss” is not as powerful as “make the shot”.
  4. Say phrases with meaning.
  5. Speak kindly to yourself.
  6. Repeat phrases often.

I often find myself repeating in my head “Two minutes. Two minutes. Two minutes.” right before a jam starts. It grounds me in the fact that this jam is a two minute chunk of time in which I can — and have — been successful. I’ve also been known to say, “Breath deep. Hit hard. Stay focused.” to myself while I’m out on the track.

Changing Negative Self-Talk To Positive Self-Talk

Negative Self Talk Positive Self Talk
·       Soccer player: “You Idiot—how could you miss such an easy shot?”

·       Roller Derby: “I suck at transitions”

·       “The opposing team is calling penalties and I am getting frustrated”

·       “I am injured and will never get back in the starting lineup”

·       “My coach just yelled at me. I cannot do anything right today.”

·       Coach: “stop getting penalties!!” or “hit your shots!” or “Don’t miss!!!”

·       “Everyone makes mistakes—I need to keep my eye on the ball, point my foot and plant.   Focus.”

·       “I am leaning this skill and have to work hard to perfect it”

·       “I need to play my game”

·       “This injury takes time to heal and I will need to work hard to win my playing time back”

·       “I am focused and practicing. I did not do well on the last drill, but I was able to successfully do x, y and z today.” Or simply, “I will do better next time.”

·       Coach: give specific advice and be encouraging. Make sure to tell athletes what they are doing well too.

Flag your talk! Do you have more red (negative) flags or green (positive) flags? Being aware of what you are thinking and taking time to analyze your thoughts can help you figure out why you feel or act a certain way in a certain situation. This allows us to work on changing the way we think, which can ultimately change the way we feel and act.

My favorite phrase recently is “Progress not Perfection“. It’s always been hugely important to me that I can execute a skill or complete a task perfectly. I’m a bit of a type A, control freak. But in striving for perfection, I can’t accept mistakes. MISTAKES ARE BAD. And lead to this downward spiral of negative self talk: “You’re a failure.” “You won’t ever figure this out.

Once I started flagging all my thoughts, I realized that I could reframe what I thought (which reframed how I felt and how I reacted). Mistakes are learning opportunities. They help me grow. And while they also frustrate the shit out of me, I can look back and see that even if I’m not perfect, I’m making progress!

Basic Mental Skill #3: Visualization and Imagery

Imagine yourself practicing a task.

You can visualize simple tasks (a plow stop) or a more complex task (one-on-one blocking). Studies have shown that visualization can help with mastering a skill, building confidence and executing strategy. When you’ve pictured yourself doing something a thousand times, it starts to feel like you’ve ACTUALLY done that thing a thousand times. And familiar things are much less scary!

How to visualize effectively:

  • Can do at home in a quiet and comfortable room, at the site of the competition, or even during practice
  • Consider combining this with a breathing/relaxation technique.
  • Close your eyes if you can and try to use all your senses–sound, smell, tactile sense, etc.
  • If visualizing a specific skill, break it down and make it as realistic as possible.
  • If visualizing a competition, try to think about it as if you are live and notice the surroundings–lights? yelling? sounds? other players present?
  • Include multiple repetitions
  • Include scenarios where there is adversity or you do not get the outcome you want, as you also want to visualize yourself bouncing back from a mistake.
  • Attaching emotional states to your imagined experiences is also important.
  • Include what you are thinking and the positive self-talk you plan to use.
  • You want this to be as vivid and controlled as possible.


  1. During practice this week and any off skates workouts, try to focus on what you are thinking. If you catch yourself using negative self talk, FLAG IT!
  1. Pick a skill that you are having difficulty with. In the next week take the time to visualize yourself performing the skill. The goal is to spend at least 5 minutes per day, every day using mental imagery.
  1. Pick one of the breathing/relaxation techniques or go online and see if you can find one that works for you and try it. Remember that it works best if you practice it several times per day before implementing this in your work out/practice.

If this feels like a lot, put it on your schedule. In order to master these skills, you really need to spend time with them. Practice makes permanent. If you can get yourself practicing it consistently, these techniques and basic mental skills will become more and more permanent within your toolbox. Eventually, you’ll be executing them without conscious thought.

Every morning before I go get my son out of bed, I sit with a cup of tea and practice these skills. It only takes about 5 minutes and I feel more mentally ready to take on my day. (And, more importantly, my next opponent.) (And, most importantly, my son.)


The bulk of this post comes from a mental toughness presentation given by one of my teammates, CohnDuct Disorder. She is a board certified physician with specialty training in psychiatry and neurology. Her assistance and information was invaluable in putting together this blog post. Most of the content is hers, but has been translated into my voice. (Although all personal stories are mine.)

Check out PART ONE here.

Want more?

If you’re interested in more exclusive content, access to my FREE resource library, and the slightly weird workings of my inner mind, you can sign up for the Iron Octopus Fitness email list HERE. Wherein I harass you weekly with all things intelligent cross training, mindset, and…other.

* From David McDuff (psychiatrist employed by the Baltimore Orioles and Ravens) and his book: Sport Psychiatry: Strategies For Life Balance and Peak Performance (2012). He discusses 5 basic mental skills and 5 complex mental skills.

** Echart, LA (1989), The Effects of Mental Imagery on Free Throw Performance.


About IronOctopusFitness

Online athletic training and nutrition coach, full-time mom, okay skater, and connoisseur of all things tea, chocolate, and roller derby. I'll help you unleash your inner athlete by building a strong, capable body that can withstand whatever life throws at you.