Reducing the Risk of Sport Injury - by Dr. Britton Brewer  
 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.