I’m sure we have all sustained an injury or know someone who has hurt themselves at CrossFit and sports therapists based around CrossFit boxes tell me that CrossFitters make up a good part of their client base. Rehabilitating injuries back to full fitness can be a long and difficult process, both physically and mentally. We may be patient with an injury that doesn’t prevent us training for too long but more serious injuries and longer time scales can pose psychological difficulties that can prolong the rehab process. The mental aspect to overcoming injury is often overlooked but having the right attitude towards rehab can make the process much easier. Being aware of the phases we might go through if we have a serious injury can help us to move through them more quickly.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross suggested that people go through 5 stages of grieving when suffering a significant loss. This is usually applied to coping with bereavement but these 5 stages are also likened to how athletes respond to serious injury. It is thought that following injury we move through the first four stages before we finally reach the fifth stage at which point we accept our injury and can begin to make strides towards getting back to full fitness. Unfortunately, we can get stuck in any one phase and this can delay the rehabilitation process and cause us to make decisions that make our injury worse.
The first stage that we encounter is denial. Deep down we know that we are hurt; our shoulder shouldn’t be so painful when we put our arms overhead but the idea that it could be serious and that we should stop training means we pretend that the sharp stabbing pains are not a big deal. We convince ourselves that a few pain killers and a quick stretch will make it go away, that the injury isn’t happening. After all, as CrossFitters we would probably become worried if some part of our body didn’t hurt! We might be tempted to downplay the seriousness of the injury, possibly not mention it to the coaches and carry on regardless. The danger of this is that by not dealing with the injury immediately and perhaps just missing out on a short time away from CrossFit, you might make the injury worse and be forced to be away from the box for months. For instance, if muscle strains are not treated and rehabilitated properly then scar tissue develops incorrectly, affecting our range of movement and ability to contract the muscle which increases the chance of developing more severe muscle strains. Being in denial is a method we use to avoid having to deal with painful emotions, which could include feelings of sadness at not being able to train or socialise with the other members of our box. However, as the injury becomes more self-evident and we begin to realise that we need to address this issue, the denial we feel turns to anger.
In this stage we start to try and find something or someone to blame, we become hostile to others. Some people might blame themselves for their injury and become angry thinking such things as “Why me?”, “ I didn’t do anything wrong, it’s not fair. I followed my training plan correctly”, “I’m not supposed to get injured, I was doing as I was told”. Anger can also be aimed at others who we think could have played a part in our injury and we might think; “I shouldn’t have listened to Brad and tried that lift, I told him it was too heavy but he made me try it. Now look where I am” or even direct our anger towards the coach who was only encouraging us to push ourselves.
Feelings of anger are natural and inevitable and some individuals can become stuck in this phase.
If we get injured it may be the first time we have been unable to go to CrossFit for a prolonged period of time and feelings of disconnectedness can surface. By being angry at someone in the box for our injury we still feel connected and not so lost.
However, maintaining a positive outlook can ease our transition through this phase. Studies have suggested that having a positive attitude can help people recover faster from surgery and cope better with serious diseases such as cancer and heart disease. So we should try to look for the positives in the situation. Time away from the box provides us with a chance to look back at our CrossFit performance and identify areas in which we can improve when we return to training; we could perhaps even consider how to strengthen our body to prevent injury. We could even start to create some workouts that you would like to complete when you return.
My knee feels much better and I’ve done all my rehab exercises for the week so I could just do a gentle spinning class?
Following anger, athletes might try bargaining with doctors, physio’s or the CrossFit coach to try and lessen the impact of their injury. This might range from suggesting that they could carry out a WOD completely scaled, to trading compliance with the rehab programme in return for being allowed to do simple WOD’s, even thinking we can train but not compete. It is important to remember however that the health professionals know best and returning to training too soon could result in more serious injury. Instead try to focus on returning to the box with your injury completely healed and pain free ready to work at recovering your fitness. Indulge yourself in memories of CrossFit and re-live your best workouts to remind yourself that the amazing workouts you’ve had aren’t going to be your last, and that there are many more exciting CrossFit times ahead.
Once an injured athlete realises and accepts that they are injured then a sense of depression can set in. The disappointment when you see the WOD online and realise that you are not going to be able to go and workout with your friends can be hard to deal with. This feeling of depression can result in a loss of motivation to complete your rehab exercises and your interest in CrossFit might start to diminish because the road to recovery appears so long. Symptoms of depression can be insomnia or a lack of appetite, both of which will affect the rate of healing. There are two important points to remember that can help us move past this stage:
1) People come back from injuries
CrossFit, like any other high intensity sport, is occasionally going to result in injuries. Chances are that most of the people in your box will have had an injury at some point, but we are all capable of recovery. Good examples of athletes coming back from serious injuries are Mikko Salo and Sam Briggs, who both missed the 2012 CrossFit Games due to knee injuries. Having mobility and strength through our knees is critical to nearly all CrossFit movements which makes knee injuries all the more devastating. Unfortunately, the rehab process for knee injuries can be very long and uncomfortable but successful recovery is completely possible with a good mental attitude, just look at these videos of Sam (click here) and Mikko (click here) working out. Sam went on to win the 2013 CrossFit Games and Mikko won the European Regionals before sadly having to withdraw with an abdominal tear.
Most people can recover from injuries and whether rehab takes 8 weeks or 8 months mental fortitude can potentially make us better than we were before.
2) Time is going to pass any way
Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take. The time will pass anyway.
The rehab process might seem too long and the prospect of returning to CrossFit might appear too far away but remember that time is not going to stop. The days and weeks are going to pass by anyway and the choice of whether to start rehab now and return to CrossFit in four months’ time or to sit at home, dreaming about CrossFit because the rehab journey seemed too far away is yours. In most cases proper recovery from an injury is vital for daily function so the advantage of getting back to the sport you love is an added bonus.
Finally, we get to accept the situation and focus our efforts on completing the rehabilitation process. This is the positive stage of the process where we acknowledge the injury and start to take responsibility for it, accept all help offered and work towards the recover with an optimistic frame of mind.
No matter what age or level we CrossFit at, injuries can be hard to deal with. Hopefully, by understanding the Five Stages of Grief model we can adopt a more positive approach to dealing with injuries and not get stuck with feelings of anger and frustration. The road to recovery might be long or short but by approaching the rehabilitation process with a more enthusiastic and positive mindset we can make the journey back to full health slightly easier.
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