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How Pro Athletes Mentally Recover from Injury or Surgery

Do you know an athlete who has been sidelined by an injury? Whether it is an ACL strain, rotator cuff tear, or another type of damage, an injury can take a physical and mental toll on an active individual.

Sometimes, the body seems to heal faster than the mind. Ligaments, muscles, and other soft tissues typically heal within 3 to 6 weeks, while bones tend to heal within 6 to 8 weeks. However, the psychological fear of re-injury faced by many athletes has been shown in research to delay healing and impair function.

If your mind is struggling after a recent injury, know that there is hope. Check out these mental tips that professional athletes including Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning have used to get back in their prime after an orthopedic injury or surgery.

1. Set Realistic Goals

An injury or surgery can really take you out of your element, and it can take time for you to trust your body again. But having unrealistic expectations for your recovery can lead to unnecessary frustration and increase the risk of re-injury. For example, a runner with a torn ACL should set weekly goals that are appropriate to their stage of healing—such as increased strength or exercise tolerance—instead of trying to get back to running as fast as they can.

A coach, physical therapist, or even sports psychologist can help you set smart and realistic goals that will allow your body to acclimate to your new reality and build from there.

2. Be Optimistic In Your Progress

Celebrate your victories as you check off your goals week by week. This positive reinforcement can strengthen your mental game and keep you motivated and inspired.

Visualization is key as well. Studies show mental imagery is a proven method for assisting with healing and can minimize the negative psychological effects of an injury. To help yourself succeed post-surgery, spend time visualizing yourself healed and performing the way you want to.

3. Practice Patience

After an injury, it's essential to let your body heal as you safely work back up to your athletic ability. Having patience helps you respect your body's natural healing process.

Recognize that recovering from an injury or surgery takes time and that trying to rush the process could lead to re-injury and an even longer recovery process. If your progress isn't perfectly aligned with your recovery goals, it's okay. This doesn't mean progress isn't happening.

4. Own Your Situation

Sustaining an injury or undergoing surgery can put a lot of stress, guilt, shame, and anxiety on an athlete. But accepting the reality of your situation helps you focus on the things you can control—such as your diet, sleep, and adherence to your medical team's guidance. Acceptance of a health situation has also been shown to improve quality of life and reduce stress.

Consider talking to a mental health professional trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) if you need help coping with your injury or surgery and developing skills that can help you manage negative emotions during your recovery process.

5. Learn About The Science of Pain

A growing field of research known as therapeutic neuroscience education (TNE) shows that learning about how pain works, as well as changing your beliefs and attitudes about pain, can decrease pain, improve function, and minimize the fear of movement—all of which have important implications for a person's mental well-being.

One three-year follow-up of a randomized controlled study even showed that TNE could improve outcomes and reduce healthcare costs following lower back surgery.

You can learn more about TNE at the Institute for Chronic Pain or by speaking with your doctor or physical therapist.


At Prime Surgical Suites, we provide state-of-the-art, cost-effective musculoskeletal surgical care in a convenient and comfortable outpatient setting for patients of all ages. Located in RiverCrest Medical Park, we are the region's first outpatient center focused exclusively on orthopedics. Our physician-led center will help restore your active lifestyle and well-being with compassion and orthopedic excellence. here…