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Training and Competing Through Pain and Injuries: Act of Courage or Skewed Perceptions?

Author: Arna Erega, PhD, LPC, LCMHC

With involvement in sports comes a possibility of a physical injury. Every athlete knows that each time they step out on a field, whether it is for practice or a competition, they expose themselves to the risk of getting injured even if they are not actively thinking about it. Sustaining an injury may be one of the most stressful experiences student-athletes face in their athletic career. A physical injury in a collegiate student-athlete causes a series of psychological, emotional, and social responses and also impacts one’s sense of identity, which are all reasons to embrace your own pace in the processing and rehabilitation journey.

As a former athlete myself, I have experienced injuries and various aftereffects of it firsthand. Now, as a clinical, sport, and performance clinician, I work with athletes to anticipate, prepare, and overcome the psychological effects of training, rehabilitation, and overcoming injuries in a way that is most true and authentic to them. University athletics and sports, in general, are influenced by the surrounding society’s culture, which reinforces dominant ideologies and practices rooted in masculinity. Women student-athlete populations have not been foci of independent research, which was a main factor in my desire to contribute to the sparse body of research investigating women athletes.

Historically, it appears that when an athlete experiences an injury, regardless of their level of performance, the attention is automatically focused on the physical and visible aspect of the injury. It appears that little attention is paid to the psychological experience encompassing student-athletes internal thoughts and feelings. Tracey (2003) pointed out that when recovering from an injury, both men and women collegiate student-athletes experience various emotions, such as anxiety, fear, confusion, and even anger. Despite the evidence of injury occurrence among women collegiate student-athletes, psychological impact, and emotional consequences, some women student-athletes opt to play through pain and injury, which is also part of their journey and embracing their decision-making process.

During my dissertation research with former female track and field athletes, I discovered that participants in my sample internalized the idea that being a student-athlete was their job, which had a direct impact on how they perceived their pain and injuries. Female athletes were found to minimize, normalize, justify, and diminish both the pain and their injuries. Mentally minimizing the pain may have been a coping mechanism participants chose to cope with the physical pain they were experiencing at the time. Participants often felt both internal and external pressures to improve their performance and continue their winning efforts despite how their bodies felt. This mindset was found to be a contributing factor to female athletes losing some of their passion for their respective sport. Furthermore, participants were found to make conscious decisions to compete and push through despite pain and injury because they felt a sense of obligation to the school, their coaches, and sometimes even themselves. In their mind, participants felt they were compensated for their “service,” which was their performance, through payment in the form of a scholarship.

Despite your respective circumstances or challenges you are facing, it is important to slow down, assess, reflect, and consider what the process of your journey in sport is and how it is impacting you as an athlete and as a whole person. You can gently remind yourself to embrace that process, and I hope the following few takeaway points below can be helpful in guiding you on how to do so.

  • Pay attention to your body; you know the difference between soreness, pain, and hurt pain.
  • Listen to your gut; you also know, and your body tells you how much you can push it vs. when it may be a good time to pause and reassess.
  • Communicate your experiences with your support network (coaches, trainers, mentors, parents, etc.).
  • Anxiety, fear, confusion, anger, and any other emotion are all normal! You are human first, and being an athlete does not exempt you from emotional and psychological impact. Create space and allow yourself time to process your emotions.
  • If you feel like you are having difficulty managing things on your own, seek a therapist, a counselor, or a mental performance consultant who can provide you with support and tools.

Guest Blog Post Written By: Arna Erega, PhD, LPC, LCMHC

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