Sports Injury and the Link to Mental Health Issues in Sports Stars

Whether you partake in sport as a hobby, to keep fit, or as a job, injury can cause severe trauma physically and mentally. Often, when we hear about an injury, our attention goes towards the pain and physical health of the individual. However, the mental challenges it causes can be more serious and potentially longer-lasting.

During exercise, more blood is pumped to the brain and organs, of which the brain releases endorphins which make you feel good. Therefore, being unable to exercise would reduce this natural high, and potentially prove a demanding hurdle for your mental health.

Knowing this, a plethora of scientific studies have established how physical activity has a positive impact on mental health, improving mood, reducing stress, reducing anxiety, increasing self-esteem and acting as a natural antidepressant.

In most cases, the required response to an injury begins with the initial event, followed by immediate medical attention, recovery, rehabilitation and then the return to activity. All phases can pose serious threats physically, but so too to the mental capacity to overcome the trauma, as psychological support is as important as physical assistance.

Undergoing an injury can make you feel demoralised, isolated, frustrated or angry, and this can be a mental shock across all sports, of all abilities and of all ages. Without psychological support, there is an enormous possibility to develop life-changing effects from these feelings, including disordered eating, lack of sleep or substance abuse.

In the case of football, a recent study by Sky Sports explores how injury carries mental trauma, which tends to go unnoticed in the football arena. Whilst feeling alone and not contributing to the team’s success, it is possible that having more time to think can distort the initial negative feelings associated with the injury.

As a semi-professional footballer myself, I suffered a torn ligament in my ankle in October 2018, which put me out for the remainder of the football season. Whilst I did not develop any long-term mental difficulties, the emotional challenges I faced were not easy to overcome.

For the first few weeks after the injury, I could not leave the house, and I had to hobble to the kitchen and toilet, without the use of my right leg. Mainly for me, this was frustrating, and isolation set in very quickly. Fortunately, I had other hobbies and activities to keep me occupied.

When I began to exercise once again, I realised that I was not at the level I was prior to the injury, physically and mentally, which is frustrating and feels as though you have to work twice as hard as everybody else to achieve the same result. On returning to football in the summer, while I felt physically capable, the feeling of not being able to play to my potential was a tough mental barrier, negatively affecting my performance.

The mental struggle associated with injury is different for everyone, and it is interesting to understand the obstacles which various people face. Particularly, professional sports stars dedicate most of their life to becoming the best athlete they can possibly be; therefore an injury setback can seriously affect their day-to-day lifestyle and further mental abilities.

In a recent interview by the BBC, Michael Keane of Everton FC opened up about his personal struggles following poor form, a result of a foot injury he suffered shortly after leaving Burnley for Merseyside in a club record-equalling deal.

After taking painkillers and injections to ease the pain, he did not want to throw in the towel, particularly as the performances of him and his team were not up to standard, and by conceding his poor form to his injury he felt it would have looked as though he was giving in.

His lack of form on the pitch, enhanced by this injury, took a toll on his mental health. He admitted how he hid away through embarrassment on the field and began to realise how confessing his physical injury straight away could have improved his psychological well being.

As a professional football player in the premier league, criticism and abuse are common themes, and for some the limelight never ceases, producing a constant stream of critique in everyday life. Injury has the potential to add to these stresses, and this combination, as demonstrated by Keane, can boil up if the mental obstacles are not addressed.

For some, a serious injury, or the associated psychological impact, can impinge on the remaining years of the career of sports stars. For example, Michael Owen won the Ballon d’Or Award in 2001 when he was 21 years old, despite rupturing his hamstring 2 years previously.

Although a remarkable achievement, by the age of 23 he admitted how his career was already in a downward spiral, something challenging to come to terms with when you do not feel as special as you once were. He was forced to change his playing style and his pace never hit the same heights, mainly due to the mental fear of pulling his hamstring once again.

For many players, serious injuries can threaten the longevity of professional careers, forcing some into early retirement, which appears difficult to come to terms with. Speaking with Sky Sports, Jamie Redknapp and Alan Smith are examples of how early retirement can affect mental health.

In particular, former Arsenal forward Alan Smith noted how following the sudden end to his footballing career at 32, he felt like an outsider. Not participating in training, match days or social events with the squad after so many years can be heart-breaking, and there is potential for retired sportsmen and women to experience dangerous side effects as a result.

Despite frustration and anguish at the fact he was unable to play professional football again, Smith managed to control his emotions, however, he highlights the side effects which many retirees face through the mental challenge of adjusting to their new lives. This transition can be difficult, and often leads to depression, substance abuse or relationship difficulty.

Within a year of retiring, one-third of professional footballers get divorced, according to the statistics of Alan Gernon’s book – ‘Retired: What happens to footballers when the games up’. This is one of the difficulties they face and having an injury decide your fate can exacerbate the distressing emotions of hanging up your boots.

Football is not the only sport where injury can cause mental trauma. This is a common theme across all sporting activities, however, it is only recently that stars are talking openly up about their struggles, allowing many more to realise that it is acceptable, and encouraged, to talk to others about how you feel.

Tennis star Andy Murray talked freely about his mental challenges in his recent documentary ‘Resurfacing’. Through his persistent hip injury, early retirement is looming, and the thought of this was a difficult mental hurdle to overcome.

Whilst admitting that athletes are conditioned to show no weakness, during his frequent spells off the court, Murray explained how being side-lined was extremely frustrating, especially when other players with the same injury recovered in a much shorter period. The longer he was out, the more external stress built up, including media pressure, sponsorship pressure and public pressure.

In addition, the thought of not returning to professional sport was mentally demanding as tennis had taken over his life, giving him structure to his day, something which many ex-professionals find it hard to adjust to.

There are many other examples within sport about how injury can cause mental challenges. It is becoming more common for professionals to open up about their feelings, as seeking psychological help or talking to someone about it is as important as physical rehab.

Mental health is not an easy topic to discuss, as the thoughts in all our heads are unique. Whether a small wound or a career-ending injury, know that you are not the only one going through that, and there are many people to talk to about it. Returning to peak physical form is important but remember not to disregard psychological rehab.

Below are some mental health charities/movements which are there to help anyone going through mental difficulties, or if you want to talk to someone about mental wellbeing.

Mind -

Headspace -

Samaritans -

Calm -

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