Another post in the Q&A series...
The first thing I want to say is that I hope people read this post whether or not they've ever been in this exact position with an injury:
Question: "What are some of the strategies you use in overcoming an injury? Specifically, is there a mental pep-talk you give yourself after recovering from an injury when you have a scary moment where you overreact mentally? I find myself apologizing and explaining that I had a recent injury, but need to pull myself together quickly to keep playing after a "close call." I've seen others struggle as well. Advice?"
Certainly, if you've been injured and felt like you've 'overreacted' in 'close call' situations during your recovery (or even well after you've recovered), it's important for you to know what's (likely) going on in your brain and body.
If you're a coach/captain/teammate/friend of someone who's ever had a serious injury or struggled to come back from injury, or has 'overreacted' in 'close call' situations, it's important for you to understand what might be going on for them.
Additionally, the information I'm going to present in this post is valuable for everyone to know because it has broad connections to any type of injury or trauma someone may have experienced in their life.
Let's start by defining the term "overreact." We use this term to describe the moment when our actions/reactions turned out to be more than the situation warranted. It is usually retrospective and it is usually judgmental in tone. I can't think of a time I've ever planned to "overreact" in advance. It usually just happens and it often happens before we really know that it's happening.
This post is written to help you understand why and how our brain and body react seemingly without your direction, much less your permission.
Here's how one athlete describes this experience:
"Everything is fine until all the sudden it's like my brain senses or feels someone running up behind me. I freeze – I go from a full sprint to a dead stop - my body just stops, tenses-up and I scream. All this to find out seconds later that the player behind me wasn't even close to me. The reaction – stopping in my tracks, tensing up, screaming – is instantaneous …it all happens before I even knew it happened. When the time warp ends, I stand there untouched, unscathed. Embarrassed, I apologize...but I feel shaken."
While there is a lot of technical neuroscience stuff that can explain these reactions down to the neuron, I want to keep it more basic here so we can all have a usable big picture understanding.
This is a textbook experience of what it's like when our primitive and emotional brains hijacks our thinking brain.
The primitive brain is responsible for our survival functions like breathing and threat detection. When a threat is detected, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we experience symptoms commonly referred to as "fight or flight" such as increased heart rate, muscle tension, and surges of adrenaline. These physiological changes are designed to help us survive the threat by priming us to run or fight for our lives.
Another somewhat lesser known response is the "freeze" response. The physiological changes in the freeze response include a similar activation of the sympathetic nervous system, but a disabling of body movement. The primitive and emotional brains basically says, "this threat is so severe that our best chance of surviving is to play dead."
What's most likely happening for athletes who experience a freeze response while playing is that the primitive brain detects a threat because the conditions - 'someone running up behind me' - are similar to the conditions under which the athlete experienced a severe injury.
Other athletes may experience similar physiological or emotional symptoms to a lesser extent. Maybe they don't freeze, but they hesitate. Maybe it's not in the moment of play, but upon returning to the field where they tore their ACL or facing the opponent they were playing when they got a concussion.
It might seem hard to believe that the brain would create such a strong response to one data point when it has thousands of other data points that are strikingly similar and nothing bad happened. This happens because our brains are wired to encode emotionally charged memories (the one data point) significantly deeper than average, non-emotional memories. Why? To keep us safe. Unfortunately, sometimes they overshoot the mark - especially when it comes to strong emotional memories like an injury.
So what do we do about it? How do we reign-in our primitive and emotional brains and allow our thinking brain to execute some control?
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK: THE PLAN
#1: Manage your expectations.
This is my number one rule for anything injury related and is especially true here. Retraining your brain to respond differently is going to take time and effort - trust that it's worth it.
#2: Remove the judgment.
Unfortunately, when we judge ourselves or others judge us for our 'overreactions,' it can actually reinforce the intensity of the emotional connection to the response, which can reinforce the response itself.
Try starting by acknowledging the judgemental thought: "I'm feeling embarrassed." Then, acknowledge that your response was in fact nothing to be ashamed of, but simply a survival instinct gone too far, "my brain felt threatened and took over, I wasn't in charge."
#3: Release your physiology.
When we have a survival response like fight, flight, or freeze, our bodies fill with neurochemicals and hormones that create physiological activation such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and muscle tension. If there is no threat, we want to release these things from our body as soon as we can so they don't continue to influence us unnecessarily.
Try starting by noticing which of these symptoms you're experiencing: "My heart rate is through the roof, I'm short of breath, and my shoulders are hunched up to my ears." Then, take deliberate action to release these sensation such as a few deliberate breaths, shaking out your arms, or a quick sprint. Be sure to pay attention to what it feels like as your symptoms release.
#4: Start rewiring your brain.
Once the judgment is contained and our body is returning to baseline, we now want to get our thinking brain truly back online. The thing is, you want to be as deliberate about this process as you can as this is a great time to start rewiring your brain for the long haul. I highly encourage you to pre-plan these thoughts in a moment of calm instead of relying on them to come to you in the moment. The stronger the emotional resonance, the more effective they will be.
Try starting with a word, phrase, mantra, or image that fills you with a positive emotion such as hope or gratitude. It could be something as simple as "I'm OK." It could be more complex like a reminder of 'your why': why you play the sport, why you love the sport, why you're pushing to play past this experience. Perhaps something like, "I'm a living example of perseverance for my kids/friends/teammates." If possible, connect this new thought to your calmer physiological state or the positive emotion it elicits. This will help you more deeply encode this response.
Numbers 2-4 are a plan for in-the-moment. The first few times you try to engage these strategies, it might be a bit slow, clunky, or bumpy. That's to be expected. The idea is that this new plan will become easier and more natural each time. You'll start to recognize indicators sooner and be able to more quickly recover. Numbers 5-X are strategies to rewire your brain in calmer moments.
Our brain has a hard time distinguishing between what is real and what is imagined. It's why we feel physical excitement just from thinking about something exciting; or feel stress from thinking about something stressful. Use this to your advantage by training your brain to respond how you want it to in your mind first.
Try starting by imagining yourself playing, using all of your senses. When you get comfortable, imagine yourself in the conditions that usually elicit your intense response - like feeling someone running up behind you. It is likely that you will start to feel some emotional and physiological activation at this point. Ideally, instead of letting that primitive brain response take-over, you imagine yourself staying calm and playing through that moment.
It may take many repetitions at this to 'get it right' and actually see yourself playing through it without having an extreme reaction. Your brain is a powerful thing, harnessing it will take time (see rule #1). If you do still see yourself responding with a fight/flight/freeze response, see yourself implementing your new recovery plan (#2-4) and returning to baseline faster.
#6: Enlist help.
Struggling is hard. Struggling alone is harder. Know that other people have gone through what you're going through. Those people may not be on your team, but that doesn't mean your team can't still be helpful.
Try starting by taking time to think about what you need/seek from people in those moments. Do you need to make eye contact with someone? Would you benefit from someone saying something specific to you? Then, think about who you want to ask for that support. Maybe start with a best friend, maybe start with a coach - whoever you feel will be most helpful for you.
#7: Embrace a new normal.
It is important to understand that injuries, even when fully physically healed, still impact us. Pay attention to what mark that injury is leaving on you and know that you can work to frame that mark in a way that it is helpful instead of harmful.
Try starting by recognizing what impact you might be noticing: "I'm not planting and cutting as much off my surgery leg." Then, think about how you could frame that in a way that is helpful: "That is forcing me to tune-in to my cutting patterns in a way I never have before." The idea here is to recognize and embrace that big things impact us, and with some deliberate work they can have a positive impact on us.
Many people who experience major life events (like athletic injuries) recognize that while they'd never wish it on anyone else, they appreciate how it has helped them grow. We might be smarter, stronger, or straight-up tougher than we were before. Let's recognize and leverage it.
I really hope you found this post helpful in understanding what might be happening for people with injuries. If you want more information on any of the topics discussed or have questions about your own experience, please reach out and let me know!
Finally, I want to acknowledge and thank a few people for their contribution to this post: E Kruise (a fellow sport psych consultant for some mind-bending 'nerd out' conversations), Jenn Housholder (a trainer with the Trauma Resource Institute for her insight on injury and the brain), and the athletes whose first-person accounts inspired and informed this post.
A few additional resources for those interested in the details of the brain and the different responses, check-out the videos below...
Emotions and the brain:
Areas of the brain:
This post was inspired by a conversation I had with an athlete this week and is shared with their permission.
We are working on increasing this athlete’s confidence and consistency. One major barrier to that has been their self-talk – the things we all say to ourselves in our own mind. Their self-talk has historically been quite critical.
Realizing we had a short turn-around between our session and an upcoming tournament this weekend, I was looking for ways to have them practice the skill of quieting their mind in everyday life between now and game time.
“Are you as critical of yourself in everyday life as you are in Ultimate?” I asked.
A knowing laugh and sheepish “yes” was the answer.
“Me too!” I said. (I don’t think they were expecting the mental skills coach to say that).
“For example, this morning when I was unloading the dishes from the dishwasher (and our son was sleeping in the next room) I banged a metal baking pan against another pan. I instantly berated myself with a harsh, ‘aw c’mon!’”
There was that knowing laugh again.
“But that was the end of it,” I said. “I couldn’t stop that first millisecond thought, but after that one thought I took a breath and emptied my mind.”
“But don’t you want to fix it?” They asked. “Isn’t the point of the criticism to help you fix the behavior and wouldn’t it be selfish not to fix it?”
“Absolutely. But who says I didn’t fix the behavior? I did: I was more careful and quiet with the rest of the dishes with a quiet mind instead of continuing to berate myself.”
This story might make me seem like I'm good at this all the time. I'm not. Quieting the critical mind is a skill, a process, and a practice. We may not always find success, we may not always remember, but the point is that we always choose to return again.
This is the choice we all have: We can continue to berate ourselves as we fix the behavior, correct the mistake, or simply carry-on with our task. Or, we can fix the behavior, correct the mistake, or simply carry-on with our task with a quiet mind. That quiet mind allows us to be in the present-moment instead of in the past. Being in the present moment is our best chance of being our best.
“But don’t some people use that self-criticism to motivate themselves?” They asked.
“Sure, we can do that. But is it the most helpful and effective motivation?” I said…answering a question with a question (my athletes get used to this overtime).
We talked through another example, this one Ultimate related: you drop a pull in a close game.
In that moment, you could think of that dropped pull and maybe the guilt you’re feeling and use that to motivate yourself to play really hard defense and work and try your hardest to ‘get the disc back’ by making a big play. And we see TONS of athletes do this…and coaches reinforce it. But that motivation can be counterproductive.
If you're over-amped and working so hard to make a big play to get the “D” – you might be thinking about poaching the lane and let your cutter get away from you. Or you might be thinking so much about redeeming yourself with a hand-block causing you to over commit on a fake and give up an easy around.
If you were able to let-go of that mistake, quiet your mind, and play in the present moment you would be more likely to be focused on playing your best defense in that moment. You'd probably stay more focused on your cutter and stay truer on your mark…which is what your team actually needs from you in that moment.
I wanted to share this quick story because I think a lot of people are in this boat together. We think that being critical of ourselves can motivate us to fix the behavior or the mistake we made. Perhaps that’s true, but couldn’t we also fix the behavior or correct the mistake with a quiet and gracious mind? How would life be different if that’s how we operated?
The point sank in for my athlete. “I feel like that’s a big life change to make,” they said sort-of jokingly.
So often when I work with athletes on their mental game in sport, we also end up talking about their mental game in life. If you train your brain to think in a certain way all day every day, how can you expect it to think differently on a moment’s notice?
That couldn’t be more true of a critical mind. Learn to quiet your mind in daily life and the skill will transfer to the moments that matter.
JOURNAL WORK: Learning to quiet the critic
When you make a mistake, become aware of the critical thoughts that enter your mind. As soon as you regain control, find a way to empty your mind.
For me, I actually either say the words “blank” or “empty” to myself, take a breath, and fill my mind instead with my current surroundings. If I’m in the kitchen, it’s as if my mind becomes the kitchen. It might seem silly, but it literally takes your attention away from the self and puts it in the task or moment.
Imagine how powerful that would be if you were on the Ultimate field and your mind became the field and everyone on it and that was the only thing in your mind. That is present-moment-focus.
Quieting your mind is a skill.
Your way of emptying your mind may be different than someone else’s. You may have to do some trial-and-error to discover the best strategy for you.
Quieting your mind is a process.
Success may ebb and flow. Some days may be easier than others.
Quieting your mind is a practice.
You may not always remember, but always return again.
This post was first published on Upwind Ultimate's Health Blog and can still also be found there at: www.upwindultimate.com/health
I’m guessing at some point in your Ultimate or athletic career, you’ve heard advice like this:
“Keep your head in the game!”
“The only point that matters is this point!”
“Stop worrying about the past or thinking about the future, just stay in the now!”
Were you able to do it on command? Or were you left wondering how to do it?
If you’re in that latter group of people left wondering how to keep your mind in the present instead of wandering back to the past or into the future, I’ve got a quick exercise you can use to train your mind to come to the present moment on command.
The exercise itself is simple and often works in the moment you need it. However, for the most lasting effects and to develop the most control over your mind, I highly recommend practicing regularly. I’ve suggested a few example times to use this exercise below, and would love to hear from you all about when/where you find it most useful!
TODAY'S JOURNAL WORK:
The Grounding Exercise
Anytime you would like to be grounded in the present moment, wherever you are, think of…
3 things you can see
3 things you can hear
3 things you can physically feel
For example, at a tournament this might sound like:
See: my teammates, people’s stuff on the sidelines, and the green grass.
Hear: cheers and sideline talk near and far away, cars driving by the fields, and some team’s block rocker playing music.
Feel: the heat of the sun, the slight breeze, and the earth under my cleats.
Suggested moments to practice Grounding:
-Right when you arrive
-When you are cleating up
-When your coach/captain is about to explain a drill or strategy
-As you’re throwing to warm-up
-When you first arrive at your field
-Anytime you start to feel a little nervous or jittery
-Between points or games as a ‘reset’ button
-On the line before the pull
-While you’re driving
-When you’re working out
-At school/the office when you’re overwhelmed
-Anytime you find your mind somewhere else when you’d rather be in the present
**A super-cool bonus to this exercise is that you can use it with another person. If you notice a teammate zoning out, overwhelmed or unable to focus, ask if you can walk them through an exercise to help them come back to the present. You might be surprised at the results!**
Hi! I'm Piers. I am an Ultimate player, spouse, parent, and human performance coach. My passion and my profession is to help individuals and teams perform at their best through research-based mental skills, resilience, leadership and team dynamics training.
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