"My back is my problem. It is not a cause for national concern." – Michael Atherton
Injuries are a regular occurrence across all standards of cricket. In their preparations for an important Test series or one-day tournament, the majority of elite cricket teams will have injury concerns.
At any given time, approximately 10% of elite cricketers have an injury. Given the frequency of cricketing injuries, understanding the psychology of injury is crucial for cricketers to deal with their emotions, maintain motivation through rehabilitation, and build confidence for their return to the game.
Who's more likely to get injured?
Interestingly, certain individuals are more 'injury-prone' than others. The frequency of injuries may be coincidental, but sometimes athletes' psychological approach to cricket influences the likelihood of injury. Injuries are more likely to occur if cricketers appraise situations as threatening (e.g., "I'm not sure I have the ability to deal with the demands of this match today").
Cricketers who think this way are likely to experience increased muscular tension, which leads to tentative and jerky movements. In addition, cricketers who dwell on these thoughts over long periods of time, and become chronically stressed, may experience immune system suppression, leaving them vulnerable to illness.
Also, concentration disruption occurs because such players focus on irrelevant cues, rather than the stimuli important for skill execution. Taken together, this psychological approach increases the likelihood of injury.
How players react to injuries
Injuries can be an emotional experience. Depending on the severity of the injury, cricketers are likely to feel intense emotions when injuries occur and/or when they receive the diagnosis. Because of this intense emotional reaction that is attached to the injury causing event, players are typically able to vividly recall what happened.
Unfortunately, these instant emotions are largely negative (e.g., sadness, despair, or anger) and can linger in the mind. Indeed, crickets may even intensify their negative emotions by engaging in illogical thoughts such as "It is terrible that I'm injured" and "my career is ruined if I don't recover quickly".
Let’s look at how cricketers can reduce the intensity of these negative emotions and promote a more adaptive response.
Tips for dealing with injuries
As stated at the start of this article, injuries are an inherent part of cricket and sport. Following the occurrence of an injury, the intensity of cricketers’ emotions will reduce over time; indeed time can be a useful healer.
Further, being injured provides time to reflect, where players have the opportunity to briefly take a step back from cricket, while downtime provides a great chance to take stock of where their games are at. An acceptance that injuries are largely uncontrollable events (e.g., "There's nothing I could have done"), together with relevant self-reflection can help cricketers to deal with their injury by gaining perspective.
Many cricketers see an injury as a stressor. Thus, cricketers' emotional reaction to an injury will depend on their perception of the stressor and whether they feel they have the adequate resources to deal it. For example, "It is awful that I am injured and I can’t cope with not playing" will give rise to a strong negative response, whereas "It is bad I’m injured, but I have the resources to cope and I will look to the future," is a much more adaptive, balanced, and motivational response.
Suggesting that an injury is awful is intimating that the injury is the worst thing imaginable, which is obviously not true (there are ALWAYS worse things).
Admitting that an injury is bad but NOT awful will help to come to terms with the situation, but not allow it to be overemphasised.
Although injuries may preclude physical training, cricketers can work on the mental side of their game when injured. Being injured provides an opportunity to develop resiliency, which is an attribute best developed through adversity and tough times.
Using mental skills such as imagery, together with seeing rehab exercises as match days can help to maintain psychological sharpness that is typically lacking when injured cricketers return to the game.
Injured cricketers may focus on the end game ("When I will be back playing"). It’s good to dream about returning to action, but cricketers should be sure not to neglect the controllable processes (e.g., advised rest, rehab exercises) that are important for optimum recovery.
Finally, although a brief time away from cricket may help initially, cricketers may benefit from remaining immersed in the team environment. The social support provided by teammates and support staff, together with the sense of camaraderie should be maintained if possible, in order to buffer the stress that is inevitable when injured.
By Matthew Slater, Dr Martin Turner, and Dr Jamie Barker, Sport Psychologists specialising in cricket and contributors to The Psychology of Cricket: Developing Mental Toughness by Dr. Stewart Cotterill and Dr. Jamie Barker.