Péter Gulácsi was supported by his teammates, András Schäfer is also on the right way in his recovery. Psychologist Levente Szántai, former NB I football player, explored the psychology of sports injuries.
The psychology of sports injuries
Sports injuries can endanger the career and the existence of a professional football player, and can become an unresolved emotional trauma. In addition, they can affect the effectiveness of the team, which is why both players and clubs spend large amounts of money for successful rehabilitation. But where is the role of sports psychology in the injury and rehabilitation process?
In addition to my sports psychology knowledge and practical experience – psychologist and playing career – I created this paper by analyzing the interviews of Hungarian professional footballers.
Negative life events before the injury
"A sound mind in a sound body" says the old saying. Certainly, it can be a predisposing factor to injury when the elite athlete is emotionally unstable or has a negative life event in his life. His attention is more focused on his problem, which inhibits focused, rational decision-making. Persistent, unresolved life situations can result in lack of sleep, frustration, and impulsive behavior on the field. This lack of concentration and impulsive behavior appears even more in stressful situations. Thus, it is possible that the rate of injuries in a match is five times higher than during training. Last year, a 16-year-old footballer contacted me to support him in his rehabilitation process after a serious knee injury. During the sports psychology consultation, it soon became clear that the reason for his injury was probably that he could not handle on with his relationship problem, his girlfriend left him and escaped to the training sessions. He trained even more and even harder to show his ex-partner with his performance that he made a big mistake by breaking up. An injury of knee ligament was the end of the excessive desire to prove himself.
A footballer should develop himself in other areas besides sports, often an injury makes the player realize that he should stand on more feet. This includes the dual career, when the player studies alongside elite sports, but this also requires the flexibility of his club, which is a difficult issue in profit-oriented competitive sports. In any case, the footballer can use his free time to develop himself. He can read sports-related books, listen to sports science lectures, and become an expert in his sport. Former national team footballer János Lázok, for example, learned to handle money at a young age and bought his first salary at the age of 21. After completing his career, he deals with real estate and also works as a UEFA A-licensed coach in Csepel.
The more the athlete devotes his life to the sport, the more likely he is to experience his injury with difficulty. The same injury can cause different reactions in different athletes. Some experience it as an illness, others see it as another challenge in recovery (this is the ideal view), there are also those who find it a relief from the constant pressure to perform.
The injury also has mental complications, such as anxiety about losing a position in the team, which reduces self-efficacy and self-confidence: "I will be removed from the starting team, someone else will be confirmed in my place." - thinks the player. In this regard, András Schäfer's way of thinking is exemplary. The Union Berlin national team player suffered an ankle injury last year and he has to miss several months. According to him, it will be difficult to get back into the Union Berlin starter team. On his part, positive thinking and maximum effort is the solution to this anxiety situation. He says injury is part of a player's career and spends more time with his family as a coping strategy.
A common reaction to an injury is the athlete's identity crisis: "If I don't play, who am I even in the life of the team?". This is reinforced by the attitude, which I have often seen during my sports career, according to which an injured player is not a player, since he is not useful to the team. Bencé Batik, currently playing football in Felcsút, injured his knee in 2015 and was able to return to the field in 2017 after three operations. Having spent half his life playing football and, he says, having to endure a long period of time without his beloved sport, the process of rehabilitation was difficult for him. Ádám Kovácsik, the goalkeeper of Győr ETO, missed nine months due to a knee injury, and is currently preparing to return after spinal hernia operation. As he puts it, he really misses the way he enters the stadium before a match, the way he feels the excited tingling that appears in him before the matches. He will be 32 at the end of the season, he still has a few years to play football, so he wants to have a good spring with his team after the rehabilitation.
It is worth making the player aware that the rehabilitation process is also part of the football career. A footballer remains an elite athlete even if he gets injured. Focusing on rehabilitation is an essential feature of the professional mentality. Furthermore, the athlete who has recovered from the injury will be a mentally stronger member of the team, which is much needed in intense competitive situations.
Support of the sports psychologist during the process
Rehabilitation begins at the moment of injury. The rehabilitation team is optimal if there is a sports doctor, physiotherapist, massage therapist, sports psychologist, dietician, and rehabilitation coach. The coach and the athlete prioritize return as soon as possible, while the doctor prioritizes the rehabilitation protocol and the sports psychologist prioritizes the athlete's well-being. This can lead to conflicts, so it is worth communicating constantly and working as a team. Bence Batik's rehabilitation was also supported by a sports psychologist in 2017. He said earlier that the process helped him a lot mentally, and it would be important for a healthy player also to ask for a psychologist support , because it feels good to talk about the difficulties or just the stimuli on the field. His case clearly shows that the player probably managed to process the trauma resulting from his injury with the help of a specialist. He said then that when he returns, he will get wings, there will be no one to stop him. He made the most of the time to get physically stronger and make his legs even more stable. Since his return, he has played continuously in the hungarian first division.
During the sports psychology process, it is important to correct the movements that cause the injury, otherwise the player may be afraid in a similar game situation in the future, and the risk of further injuries may increase. It is therefore recommended that players consult a sports psychologist for any long-term injury or multiple re-injuries. During his career, János Lázok had ten operations, which caused him to miss more than three years. If he could have spent these three years on the pitch, the former national team player would most likely have had an even better career.
In addition to the appropriate rehabilitation team, social support is essential, the presence of family, friends, teammates, coach and the club. According to Ádám Kovácsik, the simple existence of his young son and his wife help him the most mentally during this period. After Péter Gulácsi, the goalkeeper of the Leipzig national team, suffered a serious knee injury last year, his teammates ran out in his shirt during the match against Mainz. Thus, sending a message to the goalkeeper, strengthening him in his return to the field.
On the part of the player, it is worth opening up to the team and accepting his injury participate in the life of the team. As a Ferencváros player, Bence Batik told his teammates at halftime and at the end of the game how he saw the game from the stadium stands, and he still felt part of the team. This kind of behavior gave the player the experience of belonging to the team, which is one of the tasks of sports psychology work: to keep the footballer close to the environment that is so important to him. In the last third of the rehabilitation process, it is recommended that the player be present in the dressing room, at matches, meetings, and joint videos. For example, in the case of team meeting occasions, I usually ask that if the injuried player is able to walk, appear on these occasions and support effective teamwork with his comments and activity.
Before returning to the team
The fact that a player is symptom-free does not necessarily mean that he is ready to come back on the field, since physical and mental healing can happen at different times. Close to returning to the field, there may be a fear of re-injury: "If I train or put weight on my leg, I can injure it and the whole rehab is lost". Towards the end of Batik Bence's rehabilitation process, he decided that he would return when he had confidence in his legs. The point for him was not to get back on the field as soon as possible, but to return to the field in perfect condition, which was an effective strategy on his part from today's point of view. András Schäfer is also not in a hurry to return after his ankle injury last November. Earlier, he even set himself the goal of being available for Union's first spring championship match, but he no longer considers this realistic. The player's attitude also shows that it is worth constantly monitoring the goals set during rehabilitation and modifying them if necessary. It is also recommended to constantly recreate the short-term goals, since the player's physical condition and level of development can change from week to week during rehabilitation.
During the rehabilitation process, the players therefore move in different rhythm. Consequently, the use of social comparison is flawed. Although the rehabilitation process has the same steps, each player follows his own path both physically and mentally.