Shifting The Injured Athlete’s Mindset

22nd February 2022

There are many great things about playing sport – the physical and mental health benefits, the thrill of competition, the challenge of learning and improving, the social connections developed with teammates and opponents alike. Like a lot of great things in life however, there are also some costs associated – the most common and impactful for most sportspeople, being the spectre of injury and the associated repercussions.

We’ve covered a lot of injury-related topics here on SquashSkills in the past, from specific guides to certain common injuries such as shin splints, tennis elbow, and ACL tears, to more general aspects of coping with injury and then more detailed case studies into the recovery process from surgery.

The theme of this article is less about particular types or grades of severity of injury however, but more about the understanding and acceptance of injury as an inherent part of the whole process of playing sport, and the importance of a shift in mindset towards that.

injuredAll athletes, sportspeople, competitors of any level, will at some point experience injury. Most likely not just once, but multiple times across their career – particularly in such a high intensity, fast-paced sport as squash. There are ways to somewhat mitigate the chances of frequent injury occurring – increasing your strength, developing your mobility, warming up properly before you play – but no matter how meticulous you are with your training and preparation, the probabilities are stacked that injury will eventually occur. There may be someone out there somewhere who has played squash for 20yrs without any kind of an ankle/knee/shoulder sprain, but I’ve certainly yet to meet them.

So accepting injury as part and parcel of sport is a necessary change of view. It may not stop it being any less frustrating when it occurs, but understanding it is a natural element of the process of training and competing whether you’re amateur or elite, is an important mental shift.

There are of course a whole range of injuries that can occur, with a wide spectrum of severity and pain associated. Your body generally does a good job of healing itself, though this unfortunately rarely happens quite as quickly as we’d hope. Having access to a good physiotherapist can help speed up this process, as they can give good advice as to how much load you should be putting through the injured area, along with the types of exercises you should be doing to rebuild and reinforce the damaged tissue.

This is certainly one area that a lot of people could be a lot more diligent with. It’s very common to hear of people completing a few weeks of rehab exercises, and then disregarding them and going straight back to normal playing/training at the first possible opportunity. Physios will usually give a time frame of how long you should be completing your rehab exercises for, and it’s very important to stick with this – often physios will advise just to keep working with certain exercises as part of your training schedule ongoing, to help maintain strength and protect against any future reoccurrence. If this is the case, it’s important to heed this advice – one of the major risk factors for injury in a joint is a previous injury in that same joint. Continuing long-term with targeted strengthening exercises for previously injured areas is a good way to help prevent injury from reoccurring.

injuredIt’s this approach of ‘managing’ injuries that is a paradigm shift of how they should be approached. For most people, the thought process is immediately focused on how quickly can they heal up and become pain-free. With a lot of injuries however, this isn’t quite the straightforward process that we’d like it to be. Learning how to warm up the area correctly before playing/training, then how to ease down afterwards with mobility/icing, are the things that should be focused on. Taking a pragmatic approach and learning to manage your injury while the body heals and nature takes its course, is a much more constructive mindset that will lead to better outcomes long-term.

It’s very rare for an injury to occur that leaves a player unable to ever return to the court. It is far more common however, to suffer an injury that has an ongoing, long term effect – particularly as you get older. Accepting this outcome may be difficult, but it’s all part of the process of playing competitive sport. Learning how to best manage it to allow you to work through the discomfort and still play should be the target, even if that means your standard dipping a little in the short-term.

Of course, some injuries do require a prolonged period of rest, and this is where you should heed your physio’s recommendations. Assuming the condition isn’t going to be triggered and made worse however, a lot of physio’s work on an ‘accepted pain’ scale – as long as the pain feels no higher than a 6 out of 10, and as long as that number is not increasing over time, then you can often get back to playing whilst continuing your rehab alongside.

Another useful tip, is to spend some time learning more about your injury. If you have a solid diagnosis from your physio, you can do a little research to help understand it better – this in itself can be quite empowering. Reading up about other people’s experience with the same injury can also be useful, to get a deeper understanding of likely timeframes and ongoing effects.

Being injured is something that will never be easy to accept, whatever level you play at. Understanding that it is a natural and almost inevitable part of pushing your body when training or playing, and that when it does occur it’s unlikely to be a linear path of daily improvement over a set time-line until you wake up one morning completely pain free, is an important mindset to develop. Learning to work within your limits and doing all you can to manage your condition is the only sensible route, and recognising this and taking it on-board with a positive outlook is key to not allowing injury frustration to become overwhelming.


Gary Nisbet

B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
SquashSkills Fitness & Performance Director

To learn more, check out the series about dealing with a serious injury

In this series, Gary Nisbet talks through stages and expectations you might face after a serious injury and uses Peter Nicol as a case study to give his own experiences.

Watch now