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When the going gets tough in sport

Updated Wednesday, 29th June 2011
Jessica Ennis, Tom Daley and other athletes explain how they cope with injury and other setbacks - and the OU's Caroline Heaney explores their approach.

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Jessica Ennis: I think the hardest thing was just not being able to do what you normally do and just having – because normally when you train and you’re competing and stuff you’re always pushing yourself and, you know, you’re always in the gym and on the track doing the stuff, and when you’re injured you just have to take a real step back and just sit there and virtually do nothing really. So that was really hard. And then the process back into full training as well is such a slow, really cautious, really careful, just kind of progressing into each stage is really, really frustrating. So they were probably the two, two things that I found really hard.

Andy Hodge: Training hurts, um, all the sessions we do, all the tests we do week on week, that’s where the hardest point of racing is because that’s where you’ve got to break the barriers and go through the pain for that.

Shaunna Thompson: Knowing that I can run faster but not be able, not pushing myself. Because if I push myself it’d just make it worse, so it was like run, run hard but don’t run hard enough to inflame the pelvis even more. I think that was the hardest thing. And knowing that in Italy I could, if I was fit and healthy and if I didn’t have the injury then I could have, I could have stayed with the first three.

Tom Daley: The most difficult part going into Rome was the fact that I had a lot pressure. I had, I’d been doing well in the World Series, I’d been improving my personal best. My personal best was way over the score that got gold last year in the Olympic Games and I was just thinking I need to do a good performance, I need to try and get over that 500 point barrier.

Andy Hodge: We train for 49 weeks of the year, there’s a lot of effort, a lot of mental energy goes into that, and when you, when you put it into the context of the annual plan and how it all comes together, the pain is a very small part of what you want to, or the value of what you’re doing.

Jessica Ennis: I think it definitely made me stronger. I think that it just gave me a bit of time to, you know, step back from the sport and really think about what I’d achieved so far, and also what I wanted to achieve from my career. So it just gave me time to think about that. And also gave me time to just take a step back and let my body freshen up and just take a rest. So I think that really helped just to, you know, just put everything in perspective really. Um, and then coming back this year just made me even more hungry for a medal and to achieve a championship, so I think without having an injury like that, I think I would have probably done well this year but I don’t know if I would have done this well to be honest. So I think it helped me a lot.

Pete Reed: In the last six weeks leading up to the World Championships we were really trying to dominate every session, and it’s hard to do that when it’s two or three sessions a day, you get so run down. But our bodies were just so resilient and coped with it well and I think whatever boat we’re in this season and the ones leading up the Olympics we know how hard we can push ourselves now.

Tom Daley: My personal best was way over the score that got gold last year in the Olympic Games and I was just thinking I need to do a good performance, I need to try and get over that 500 point barrier. And going into the competition all I was thinking was just make sure I do each dive as well as I possibly can and just make attention to detail my main priority. And then after the competition when I found out that I’d got 500 and, nearly 540 points which is a point over what was scored at the Olympic Games in 2008, so I was really happy with that.

Imagine you’re the favourite to win an important event, maybe even the Olympic Games. You’ve trained hard and are at the top of your game, but two weeks before the event you sustain a serious sports injury. How would you feel?

Injury can be difficult for any sports performer but for those competing at a high level, often on a full-time basis, the impact of injury can be significant, leading to anger, frustration and anxiety. In an interview with The Times, 2009 World heptathlon champion Jessica Ennis compared the injury she sustained prior to the 2008 Olympic Games to a bereavement: “I know it sounds dramatic, but to devote your life to something and then have it snatched away is a bit like suffering a bereavement. You’ve lost something that’s part of you.”


Coping mechanisms

The ability to cope with a sports injury can be viewed as a measure of the mental strength of an athlete. Shaunna Thompson on the start line Research has shown that those who cope best with injury demonstrate characteristics such as a positive and proactive attitude towards injury, realistic expectations, and high levels of self-confidence and belief in their ability to recover.

There are various mental strategies that injured athletes can use to help them cope with injury. For example, imagery, sometimes known as visualisation, can be used in different ways during injury, including practising physical skills when physical practice isn’t possible. And though it sounds bizarre, there is some evidence to suggest that imagining the injured tissues healing can actually speed up the healing process.

Positive self-talk can aid recovery too by helping athletes develop a positive attitude towards recovery and rehabilitation. Relaxation techniques such as controlled breathing techniques, meditation and a technique called ‘progressive muscle relaxation’ can help to ease the stress and anxiety that often arises with injury, as well as relieve tension in the injured area.

And finally, the benefits of social support can never be overestimated as contact is lost with team-mates and/or coaches when the athlete is injured. Simple measures such as undertaking rehabilitation exercises alongside team practice sessions can help maintain social support and remove this isolation.

A silver lining to injury?

The adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ certainly appears to be true of sports injury, with some Jessica Ennis warming up athletes reporting unexpected positive consequences. With the opportunity to compete being removed, it allows some athletes to recognise the importance of sport in their lives, meaning they become more determined to succeed when they return. In an interview with The Guardian, Jessica Ennis (pictured right) said she believes her injury in 2008 helped her to improve her performance in 2009: "I think partly it was having a bit of time to freshen up and have a little bit of time off. In the end having a break did me a little bit of good."

Those who have been through an injury also often develop skills that can be successfully transferred to their sports participation and other areas of their life. For example, an athlete might develop coping skills that make them much more resilient to the pressures of intense sports competition, allowing them to recognise these potential gains and draw upon the positive aspects of injury.

Overall, successful athletes need to be resilient and able to cope with setbacks. While an injury can represent a major setback for an athlete, with the right approach, an athlete can gain several positive aspects from the experience.


Find out more

Interested in discovering more about the mind of an athlete?

The Open University has launched a new course ideal for those interested in the psychological aspects of sport and exercise participation. Content will be delivered through a selection of sport and exercise case studies, and will offer an insight into topics such as the psychological aspects of sports injury, exercise dependence, and psychological skills training.

Find out more about injury and rehabilitation
Elizabeth Quinn's article on coping with a sports injury

The Open University provides a range of courses through distance learning. Why not request a prospectus today and start a new journey.


'Views of chartered physiotherapists on the psychological content of their practice: A follow-up survey in the UK' by Arvinen-Barrow, Hemmings, Weigand, Becker and Booth in the Journal of Sport Rehabilitation (2007).

'Physiotherapists' perceptions of sport psychology intervention in professional soccer' by Caroline Heaney in the International Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology (2006).



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