The Mindful Approach to Injury

When I think back on all of the injuries that I incurred as a gymnast, I cringe at the way I dealt with them.  I have that same reaction when I watch gymnastics, or any sport for that matter, on TV and hear the commentators praising athletes for competing with a torn rotator cuff or pushing through some type of physical pain. 

Having been a gymnast for 21 years, I understand that mentality of “mind over matter” and “no pain, no gain”, but now 16 years removed from sport, I have a completely different perspective.  While we’re in the thick of competition, we push through in hopes of attaining our athletic goals, and we’re oftentimes praised for it.  Pushing through creates a sense of feeling tough and even more deserving of our accomplishments once they’re met. 

But is this short-term gain worth the long term pain? I don’t think so…

I was one of those athletes who had a lot of injuries throughout my athletic career and pushed beyond where I should have.  My body was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t listen.  Then it started to yell at me, and I didn’t listen.  Then, it started to scream at me, and…I didn’t listen.  It met it’s limit a few years back, and I have been forced to relearn how to truly listen to and respect my body. 

 So, I’m speaking from experience here and want to ensure that our young athletes know how to listen when their bodies are talking to them and praise them for having the intelligence to honor and respect the physical messages.

I believe there is a different way to work with injury in sport.  I know that injuries are inevitable, but what we can control is how we relate to them, learn from them, and make the mind and body even stronger as a result of them. 

 First and foremost, we need to focus on injury prevention through proper nutrition, stretching, conditioning, and skill progression.  This is our approach at OAW—one of addressing all areas of wellness to minimize the risk of injury.  That said, injuries and accidents happen regardless of your level of preparation sometimes, so how do we handle them?

It’s critical that athletes feel safe to speak up when they are injured.  If they aren’t encouraged to share their needs or feel that they need to push through in order to be praised, they won’t tell their coaches when they are injured and will continue to cause more harm.  Having a safe space to speak up can put the mind of an athlete at ease knowing that they can listen to their body’s messages and vocalize when they feel pain. 

Gymnasts also need to know how to listen to their bodies with an accepting attention.  Most successful athletes have great body awareness, but it’s oftentimes accompanied by a very critical judge.  So, they may be completely aware that they are in pain, but their mind tells them to tough it out, stop being weak, or just ignore it. To counter this inner criticism, athletes need to be taught how to be aware of their bodies with respect and acceptance. 

How do they learn this?  We have to teach them!  There’s a mindfulness practice called “the body scan” which is simply a mental scan of the body from toes to head, coming in contact with the raw sensations that arise.  The body scan can be guided (preferably by someone well-versed in the practice, and I have included one here), or once the athlete understands it, can do it on his/her own. 

Enjoy this guided body scan by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

This practice trains the brain to recognize physical sensation free of judgment.  How can this help with injury?  If the athlete has practiced getting in touch with what is going on in their bodies, they will be much better equipped to know when something is off or being overly stressed and, most importantly, have a more respectful way of relating to it. 

Instead of mentally trying to override the pain, they will learn how to listen to the messages the body is sending.  That, coupled with a safe space to speak up, will allow the athlete to then take the proper measures to take care of the pain or injured area.

I personally utilized the body scan following my gymnastics career because I was so distant from my body, if that makes sense.  I didn’t really know how to listen to what it was saying because my brain had been trained to, regardless of what my body was saying, ignore it or overcome it somehow. 

So, once again, hindsight is 20/20, and all of us at Optimal Athlete Wellness want to make sure that gymnasts take care of their bodies!  We work to minimize injury in the first place. When injury has occurred, however, we need to encourage athletes to take care of and respect what their bodies are telling them. 

 The short-term gain is not worth the long-term pain, and we don’t have to push through in order to be great in sport. 

 Let’s train smart.

Let’s be mindful.

Let’s create a safe space for athletes’ voices to be heard.

Let’s praise our athletes for knowing how to listen to their bodies instead of praising them for ignoring and pushing beyond their limits.

Let’s teach our athletes how to honor and respect their bodies so they can reach their fullest potential in sport and have health and balance in their life after sport.