There are many joys associated with
participating in sport – the fun of learning new skills, the elation of
victory, the satisfaction of performing one’s best, and the thrill of
being on a team striving toward a common goal, to name only a few. But
sports involvement is not without risk and sometimes the pleasures of
participation come at the price of physical injury. Each year, millions
of Americans sustain sport injuries. Fortunately, most of these injuries
are minor and require little more than a bandage or an ice bag and a few
days off. Some injuries, though, are more severe and necessitate
significant time away from sport and more extensive (and often
expensive) medical treatment, which may involve diagnostic testing MRIs,
bone scans, etc.), surgery and rehabilitation.
When they get injured, athletes typically look to physical factors as
the source of their injury. Common culprits include trauma, overuse,
muscle weakness, poor mechanics, and lack of fitness. The important role
of physical factors in causing sport injury to occur cannot be denied
(as a 300 pound lineman landing on your ribs will certainly convince
you!) But, affirming the mind-body connection that is increasingly
recognized in matters of health and health care, three decades of
scientific research has shown that a variety of psychological factors
contribute to injuries sustained by athletes in a variety of sports.
The leading psychological culprit in sport injury occurrence is – you
guessed it – stress. Athletes with a history of stressful life events in
their recent past are at increased risk for injury. Although events
perceived as negative (such as losing a loved one or having trouble in
school) generally have the most dramatic effect on vulnerability to
injury, events perceived as positive (such as developing a new romantic
relationship or receiving an honor or award) can also increase stress
levels and susceptibility to injury.
Personality also plays a role in the occurrence of sport injury.
Athletes who are chronically anxious, depressed or angry are at elevated
risk for injury, as are athletes with classic Type A personality profile
characterized by the tendency to be hard driving, hurried and hostile.
Assertive, self-assured athletes who pursue their sport goals with a
singular, obsessive determination may also put themselves in position
where injury is likely to occur.
In addition to personality, the coping resources that
athletes have at their disposal contribute to injury vulnerability. The
risk for injury is heightened for athletes who perceive themselves as
lacking support from others in their environment – be it technical
assistance, emotional comfort, or guidance and information. Those
lacking such support who are generally anxious or have difficulty
dealing with stress are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of
stress on the body and consequently physical injury.
So how do stress, personality and a deficit in coping resources increase
the risk for sport injury? Sport scientists suspect that stress can
cause athletes to be vulnerable to injury by making their muscles tense
(causing “bracing” or other awkward motion) narrowing their peripheral
vision, and diminishing their attentional focus. Ultimately, having
tight muscles, experiencing “tunnel vision” or being distracted from the
task at hand invites injury in sports where muscle flexibility, seeing
the “whole field” and paying attention are at a premium. For example, a
soccer player with impaired peripheral vision is likely to be more
susceptible to being “blind-sided” by a member of the opposing team.
What can an athlete do to reduce his/her risk for injury? In addition to
developing proper technique in their sport and being in proper
condition, athletes can decrease the likelihood of becoming injured by
learning and applying stress management techniques such as imagery,
relaxation and biofeedback. Training in attentional control can also be
useful. Incidentally, these psychological approaches can not only reduce
vulnerability to injury but can also enhance sport performance, as being
able to relax and maintain control under pressure are important sport
skills. By getting mind and body on the same page, athletes can maximize
their sport experience.
Dr. Britton Brewer is an Associate Professor of Psychology at
Springfield College in Massachusetts, where he teaches psychology and
conducts research on psychological aspects of sport injury.