How to Handle Trauma in Sports

As an athlete

Trauma in sports comes in many forms, but at the core it involves experiencing extreme negative emotions which lead to an experience becoming traumatic.

What happens then, is that when you find yourself in a similar situation in the future, those negative emotions come rushing back.

So it’s important for you as an athlete to learn how to manage this trauma. To do so, we first need to look at what causes trauma in the first place.

What Causes Trauma in Sports

Sports trauma happens when an experience results in extremely negative emotions. It’s very similar to trauma in any other area of your life. Something happens, it imprints a negative emotion, and then that experience becomes traumatic.

In sports, we often don’t think of situations and experiences as being traumatic. But as a sport psychology consultant, I’ve witnessed sports trauma in many of the athletes I’ve worked with.

Here are a few examples of the types of trauma I’ve come across…

  • Making a mistake to lose the game.
  • Getting injured.
  • Getting yelled at in front of the team.
  • Playing against an intimidating opponent.
  • Getting pulled out of the game after a mistake.

On the surface these may seem like incidental things that happen to all athletes. So why should we label them as traumatic?

Well, the situations themselves aren’t necessarily traumatic, but they have the potential to be traumatic. It’s all based on how the athlete responds to the situation and how intense the emotions are that they feel.

Let’s use playing against an intimidating opponent as an example.

When you face an intimidating opponent and you become insecure, feel intimidated, and perform poorly, you will likely get very frustrated with yourself.

Then what happens is you beat yourself up over not being able to handle facing them, and subconsciously you grow to fear facing them again.

Then when you play against them, or a similar opponent in the future, you will automatically feel those negative emotions and you will likely perform badly.

This then reinforces the trauma and it becomes a cycle.

Another example is when you get yelled at in front of your teammates. Yeah, this happens to pretty much every athlete. But sometimes it can have a lasting impact. Especially if the athlete is younger.

What can happen is you feel extremely embarrassed and upset about not only the yelling, but playing badly. Then what can happen is you develop fear of failure because you are afraid of making mistakes.

What can also happen is you develop the need for social approval because you want your coaches to approve of you and your teammates to approve of you as well.

Both of these mindsets will hold you back as you move forward.

Any Situation Can Be Traumatic

Looking over the examples from above, it’s safe to say that these won’t always be traumatic experiences for all athletes. That’s because everyone responds to things differently.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad that a situation became traumatic for you, it’s just the truth. And the important thing is recognizing that it was traumatic so we can then work on handling it.

But before we move on to the strategy you can use to handle trauma as an athlete, there’s one key piece of information we need to discuss.

And that’s the fact that anything can be traumatic!

This doesn’t mean you want to tiptoe around in fear. Instead, I say that to recognize that any situation you’ve faced that resulted in extreme negative emotions may have been traumatic.

And when something is traumatic, it will impact your actions in the future. The reason it’s important to recognize trauma and work through it is that it will help you overcome blocks that are likely holding you back within your game.

No athlete wants to underperform, yet, when you are dealing with sports trauma, whether you’re aware of it or not, you will perform below your potential in a similar situation in the future.

So don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed of having trauma in your sport. It’s easy to have happen. And honestly, the more you care, the more chance there is you will deal with trauma.

Sport Psychology Tools to Manage Sports Trauma

Sports trauma results in a specific pattern forming in your subconscious. So what we must do is work on changing your subconscious beliefs in relation to the trauma.

This takes two things: consistency and repetition.

The tools outlined below have helped athletes I’ve worked with overcome their trauma. But only because they put in the time and effort to make the change happen.

So if you’re ready to manage your trauma as an athlete, here are the tools you can use to do so…

Tool #1: Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring is a part of cognitive behavioral therapy. It works to alter your natural thought patterns by identifying the negative thoughts you have and replacing them with more positive and productive ones.

While that may sound complicated, the way you can use cognitive restructuring as an athlete is quite simple.

Here’s what you want to do:

  • Make a list of all the thoughts you have about a traumatic situation.
  • Create a new list of positive statements that would increase confidence.
  • Repeat that new list to yourself at least once a day.

The first part of the tool involves you brainstorming how you think during a traumatic moment and in relation to it. For example, you may think, I never play well in pressure-filled moments. Or you may say, I wonder what coach is thinking.

Once you have those outlined, you want to create a new list. Take each statement and come up with a positive alternative that works to increase your confidence or calm you down.

The last part is where the change occurs, and that’s repeating the statements to yourself each day. I had an athlete who found incredible success by not only repeating the statements to himself, but rewriting them each day as well.

The more you repeat the statements, the more you retrain yourself to think in a new way. By thinking differently, you work to alter how you feel in relation to traumatic events.

Tool #2: Visualization

Another way you can work on managing trauma as an athlete is by practicing visualization.

Visualization allows you to see yourself perform in the safety of your mind. But what’s even more helpful, is that you can bring emotion into the scene. This helps to reassociate how you feel in relation to the traumatic situation.

For example, if you begin to feel intimidated as soon as you see a certain opponent, you can work to change how you feel in that moment through visualization.

Another example is if you made a mistake at the end of the game. What you can do is use visualization to increase your confidence in that moment.

Here’s how the visualization will work for managing trauma:

  • Get into a quiet location, close your eyes, and take about ten deep breaths.
  • Begin to visualize the situation where you experience trauma (feel the normal negative emotions).
  • Now switch that feeling for a feeling of confidence, relaxation, happiness, or however else you would like to feel.
  • Then see yourself perform well and feel successful afterwards.

You want to repeat this visualization a few times a day to begin building more confidence and altering your subconscious beliefs towards the trauma.

Mental Coaching for Sports Trauma

Cognitive restructuring and visualization are powerful tools you can use to manage sports trauma. But remember, they must be used consistently!

Now, if you’re looking for a more personal approach, then you need one-on-one mental coaching.

With mental performance coaching, I will work with you to identify your trauma and figure out what triggers it and how it is negatively impacting your performance.

Then, we will work together to decide on the best course of action and tools to use to help you overcome your trauma so you can perform freely and with full confidence.

To learn more about mental coaching, please fill out the form below.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

Contact Success Starts Within Today

Please contact us to learn more about mental coaching and to see how it can improve your mental game and increase your performance. Complete the form below, call (252)-371-1602 or schedule an introductory coaching call here.

Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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Learn more about our two main mental training courses for athletes: Mental Training Advantage and The Mentally Tough Kid.

The Mentally Tough Kid course will teach your young athlete tools & techniques to increase self-confidence, improve focus, manage mistakes, increase motivation, and build mental toughness.

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