Basketball and injuries unfortunately go together like peanut butter and jelly. They’re basically unavoidable, and it’s highly likely that at some point during your career you’ll encounter one. So today we’ll look at ways to recover mentally after a basketball injury.
Overcoming the emotional and physical challenges of an injury requires the ability to deal effectively with the mental side of rehabilitation. The mental side is especially challenging because in addition to the physical pain, there is the emotional pain of being temporarily sidelined and not being able to perform at pre-injury levels.
WNBA Champion Alysha Clark encountered her first season-ending injury in 2021. She was initially immersed in feeling the stages of loss. “While it’s a huge blessing in disguise, because I’ve been able to play so long without having to miss an entire season due to injury, it’s still like, well this is a sucky time because I’m 34. I felt like I was playing some of my best basketball. And I’m not getting any younger. So there’s that part of this like, ‘Oh gosh am I going to come back and be OK? Am I going to be the same? Am I going to be better?” she said. Alysha was also cast into a sea of pain and discomfort.
“In the beginning, honestly, like if I’m being a hundred percent transparent, like I thought I was going to drown in the beginning. Because there was so much pain happening at one time and like I said I’m a creature of habit, I’m a creature of comfort.” she said.
Alysha’s recovery process left her feeling very isolated and alone, especially because she had just joined a new team, the Washington Mystics, in a new city, after a successful career with the Seattle Storm.
“And in the beginning it was really, really hard. I didn’t know if I was going to make it through. It was tough. I was alone. I’ve been alone throughout the majority of this process. And that’s really tough. Just to be the person that has to encourage you; the person to push you; to give you pep talks; to motivate you to get up everyday to do these things; the person to comfort yourself when you’re feeling down. It was hard.” she said. “So I’ve gotten to the point now where I agitated and pushed to get a team around me to just help. I remember the first time I was going to the PT I’m working with now. Man it’s so nice just to have an appointment to go somewhere to work with someone and not have to do this myself.”
“And it’s been hard, it’s a lot deeper, but I’ll spare you. I’m at the point now where I’m turning a corner. I have 88 days until camp starts. And every day that I’m doing stuff, I have a countdown on my fridge.” she continued. But even amidst her struggle she was able to find the positive, and keep persisting.
“This time off has given me a chance to miss the game. It’s given me time to work on things I’ve never done before.” she said.
Alysha was able to take her experience and make it into an opportunity. She took the time to develop new aspects of her game. “Something as simple as passing. Working on different passing angles and how to read where to make passes; how to get different passes off. I’ve never had time to be able to work on that. So to be able to see that growth from the first time I started working on that to now ‘I’m like wow. I’ve gotten so much better.’’
Let’s take a look at how you can use similar mental techniques to overcome your injury.
The goal for the hooper is to be the master of the injury, rather than letting the injury master them. Make rehab your new sport until you get your game back. Here are some tips from The Champion’s Mind for how you can win the inner game of rehab to make a triumphant return to the court:
There are several common stages hoopers often – but not always – go through following a significant injury. The first stage is shock or denial: I can’t believe this is happening. The second stage is anger: Why me? Why now? The third stage is bargaining: If only I didn’t go up for that layup. The fourth stage is depression: Rehab is useless, why even bother? The fifth stage is acceptance: I will make the best of what happened. Recognizing these feelings is the first step to manage them, own them and move through them.
Las Vegas Aces guard Kelsey Plum went through the stages when she tore her achilles. “I think when I tore my achilles, I went to my friend’s house, I was in the bathroom, I was in the shower, and I remember crying. And I was crying because I was angry.” she shared.
“But I was also like OK this is the last time you’re allowed to cry because for the next nine months. Because I was like ‘When do you come back from an achilles from 12? All right let’s do it in nine.’ I have to put all my energy, focus, mental, emotional capacity into these next nine months. And if I spend any time complaining, feeling sorry for myself, being a victim. I’m going to lose out. This is an Olympic medal on the line. I’m going to lose out. And so I literally had a conversation with myself that was like all right, we’re going to do this, you’re going to be the joy and spark plug in all of this.”
Proactively seek assistance from medical professionals and get encouragement from family, friends, and teammates. The key is to talk about your feelings, rather than keeping them to yourself. Consider setting up weekly Zoom meetings or in-person hang outs with the same set of people in advance, so you don’t have to put effort into it each week. Don’t be too proud to talk with a therapist. Rehabilitation is an individual process – it’s different for everyone, but that doesn’t mean you have to go it alone.
Be incredibly patient, but also persistent. You might recall Kevin Durant rushed back from a calf injury, only to rupture his Achilles before entering free agency. If you don’t do enough rehabilitation, you will only prolong your recovery. If you overdo your rehabilitation, then you might re-injure yourself quickly. Trust the process by adhering to the recommendations of your athletic trainers and doctors – as well as by listening to your own body.
Spend a few minutes each day visualizing the injured area healing, becoming stronger, and returning to normal. Imagine an ice pack or healing colors surrounding the injured area when you experience pain from the injury. Spend some time studying game film or imagining yourself performing your sports skills, too. That will help keep your mental athletic abilities sharp as you wait for your physical abilities to return.
In collaboration with your sports medicine team, discover creative ways to make the most of your recovery time through exercise or by pursuing other hobbies and interests. For example plan and create a new meal from a different part of the world each week, if you have a passion or cooking. If you injured your lower body, strengthen your upper body, or vice versa.
New York Liberty sharp shooter Sami Whitcomb has always heard people say when they’ve gotten an injury or something that sidelines them for an extended period of time that they’re able to add something to their game that they’re really grateful for. “They feel not necessarily that it happened for a reason, but that they’re able to have a bit more of an optimistic and positive outlook.” she reflected.
Aces team trainer Laura Ramus explained that athletes can even unlock a new level of understanding about their own bodies during the recovery period. “A lot of times during rehab, athletes learn so much about their anatomy and their body and what it wants to do, and what it actually should do,” she said.
Maintaining good self-care habits by getting plenty of rest and sleep, and continuing to maintain good balanced eating are critical components too.
Kelsey focused on her self-care during her get back, and was able to be back in time for the 3×3 Olympics. “I didn’t do a ton of social. I did when I needed to but I kind of got off of that. I didn’t really watch a ton of shows. I mean it was in the middle of a pandemic, and so I really tried to spend my ounces of time – I would ask myself ‘OK is this helping me get back?’ – and if it’s not, it’s not for me. I was super diligent the way I ate, and the difference is in the details. I’ve learned that. The difference between someone like a Sue Bird and then someone that’s like a good point guard in the league, she does this much more better, more focused, more intently, and it makes a huge difference.”
Basketball journaling can help you set recovery goals, record progress, and build on it. Journal your injury recovery and gratefulness. Writing things down will help you identify the patterns that aid in fast healing, boost your motivation, and increase confidence. Besides, jotting down your worries, pains, aches, and achievement provides a venting platform without fear and prejudice.
Embrace the attitude that any setback is an opportunity for a comeback. Stay optimistic during any downturns or plateaus in the recovery process. Recovery can be like a journey up a mountain. Sometimes the path will go down or hover at the same level, but eventually, when you are persistent, you will get to the top and achieve your comeback! Recovery does not happen overnight or in a straight line. Anticipate waves and ups and downs, and remember these are all part of the healing process.
Keep a mantra written somewhere like on your mirror or your refrigerator or phone background screen. Read it or repeat it to yourself when doubts creep in. Positive affirmations can be effective too.
Remember you’re not alone. Dallas Wings‘ point guard Moriah Jefferson is no stranger to overcoming injury. “I grew as a person. I got a lot stronger mentally,” she said after one of her multiple knee surgeries. Moriah’s first three or four months of rehabilitation were “a lot of nothing.” “Straight leg and crutches,” she said. “It was really boring and really hard.” Ultimately Moriah stayed away from basketball — except for shooting — for nine months. Now she’s back on the court nabbing steals and driving her team’s energy.
Every hooper can recover mentally after a basketball injury. Hopefully these tips help set you on your way. Up next, learn about how to build your confidence in basketball.
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