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Sports injuries test more than muscle

When athletes get sidelined, strategies to build mental and emotional resilience are a key part of recovery.

Carrie Jackson was in the middle of a graduate program in sport psychology when she tore her left medial collateral ligament while snowboarding. As ski patrol brought her down the mountain in a rescue sled, Jackson was already devising a plan to apply the mind-body techniques she was studying to her recovery. 

“Recovery is now your sport,” she told herself.  

That mindset paid off. When Jackson returned to snowboarding and rock climbing, she had her best season ever. “I 100 percent attribute that to the mental training that I did while I was injured,” she says.

Since then Jackson has become a mental skills coach and certified mental performance consultant and founded The Injured Athletes Club. She has helped countless athletes come back from injuries through this organization and group coaching.

“For athletes — for anyone, really — the work on the psychological side of things is just as important as the physical work,” says Raj Hazarika, MD, SM, vice president and chief medical officer of commercial products at Point32Health, a not-for-profit health and well-being organization.

Getting sidelined 

In her daily life, Sydne Didier, who runs a swim coaching business called Swimcrest Aquatics in Amherst, Mass., deals with double vision and a lack of depth perception due to strabismus, a visual condition. But that doesn’t matter when she’s in the water. “Swimming is a time where I can be awake and alert, but I don’t have to focus visually,” she says. “It’s really freeing.”

At age 51, Didier became the first female swimmer to circumnavigate the island of St. John, but about six months later, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament while skiing. She was also going through perimenopause. “Your body is already going through changes, and then all of a sudden, you have this injury that also makes you feel like you’re not fit and like, ‘This is it, I guess it’s over,'” she says. “The mental piece was really hard for me.”

Sydne Didier swimming in the middle of the ocean while wearing a swim cap and goggles.
Sydne Didier swims in the Caribbean Sea along the coast of St. Lucia.

Struggling mentally after an injury is normal for both elite and recreational athletes. “There are all these mini-losses that happen when you get injured,” Jackson says. Not only do injured athletes lose their sport and endorphins they’re used to, but it’s also common for them to feel like they’ve lost their ability, goals, social life, stress outlet, creative outlet, and even identity.

“There are absolutely things that you can do to help with your mental and emotional recovery, and it is absolutely worth putting the time and effort into those things,” Jackson says. “We know they have a significant impact on not only your mental and emotional health but on injury outcomes as well.”

Jackson recommends deliberately redefining your goals and celebrating when you meet your new milestones to help with motivation and confidence. She also advises using visualization techniques and other tools outlined in “Rebound,” a psychological guide to recovering from injuries she co-authored.

“My sport was rehab,” Didier says. She got stronger, and by the summer of 2023, Didier swam the west coast of St. Lucia. “I was basically against the current for almost 15 hours, so I needed every bit of that strength,” she says. 

The physician’s assistant who initially diagnosed Didier’s injury told her that at her age, they wouldn’t recommend surgery because “now is the time when she should be slowing down,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Um, okay, I’m going to be leaving now.'” She found a new doctor and went to a physical therapist who understood her desire to return to swimming as soon as possible.

Drafting your team

For marathoner Kate Mroz, 34, building a team that included a dietitian, physical therapist, running coach, and therapist was essential after she got a stress fracture in 2019. They helped her realize that the stress fracture was caused by underfueling due to an eating disorder she thought she had left behind when she was a teenager. Working with what she calls “team Kate,” Mroz learned how to train more healthily. 

A woman wearing athletic attire and sunglasses celebrates with her arms in the air after a successful marathon.
Kate Mroz celebrates after a marathon.

When she returned to marathons in 2021, “I ran a [personal record] and also didn’t feel like I was going to completely pass out at the finish line. It was just this amazing experience,” she says. “What I’m proud of is that it wasn’t just a physical challenge running my PR, the mental challenge was just as hard.” She qualified for the 2022 Boston Marathon based on her speed alone and therefore didn’t need to fundraise, but she still chose to raise money for the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. 

Mroz and Didier also agree that finding other athletes who have been through sports injuries, like in the Injured Athletes Club, was hugely beneficial.  

“You aren’t alone even though you might feel alone,” Jackson promises. “Whatever you’re feeling is okay, and I guarantee you there’s another injured athlete who has felt the exact same thing.”

Learning to pivot

Recovering from an injury can lead to unexpected silver linings. Joan Benoit Samuelson, an elite marathoner who has won six marathons, including a gold medal win at the 1984 Olympics, may never have been a runner at all if it weren’t for an injury. 

“Funnily enough, I started after I broke my leg while ski racing in high school. Always a competitor, I wanted to get back into shape as quickly as I could, so I started to run as a form of rehab,” Benoit Samuelson shared in a recent interview with Runner’s World. “I loved the challenge of it — I think I’ve always loved challenges. And life is full of challenges, as we all know. That’s where it all began.”

Jackson often coaches athletes to find different outlets during recovery — maybe something they used to love doing but haven’t had time for while focusing on their sport.

Mroz had taken a triathlon class at her local YMCA and decided to lean into the lower-impact sports of swimming and biking during her recovery.

“Instead of ‘you can’t run,’ I thought let’s look at it as ‘you’re gonna become a really badass biker and swimmer.’ And I did,” she says. She has since completed an Ironman Triathlon. “Running isn’t my everything anymore. I love it, but I love biking almost as much. I have other things.”

Carrie Jackson training alongside a coach in a gym for physical therapy.
Carrie Jackson works alongside her coach in physical therapy.

Didier also started fostering dogs five months post-surgery. “I don’t know that I would have allowed the space for that before,” she says. “It’s become a hugely important part of my life.” Now, a year and a half later, she not only fosters dogs but is the foster coordinator for the local rescue. 

A bonus of this new facet of Didier’s life: The foster dogs fit in swimmingly at the pool. “That too, has changed my coaching life,” Didier says. “When I’m working with an anxious client and I can bring a three month old puppy down to the pool, they are emotional support animals for my clients… I have clients who are like, ‘Okay, I’m really scared, but I can pet the puppy, and then I know I can do it.'”

Point32Health is a not-for-profit health and well-being organization, guiding and empowering healthier lives for all. Together, our family of companies – Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan – help our members and communities navigate the health care ecosystem through a broad range of health plan offerings and tools.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's Studio/B in collaboration with the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.