Have you lost your motivation? Finding motivation after injury can be frustrating and elusive. This blog will help you.

Network for Advancing Athletes mentors Courteney Lowe, Carrie Toleffson, Tina Pic, Annie Ewart, Alison Tetrick, and founder Amber Pierce share a love of their sport, a passion for guiding fellow female athletes, and all-too-much experience with injury.

Through traumatic brain injuries, an obscure vascular condition, and various fractures, these ladies have learned–sometimes the hard way–that injury is an unforgiving but rewarding teacher.

Just like most injured athletes, they’ve wrestled with finding a healthy attitude. They’ve struggled–like you probably are–with feeling trapped and frustrated due to activity restrictions (aka activity jail). They’ve resourcefully discovered techniques to mentally move forward–whether from minor injuries or season-ending ones.

Injury dashes in, robbing your positive-attitude-and-motivation bank account. Denial and anger hasten the demise into negativity. What these ladies graciously share about their own struggles will keep your attitude, motivation, and focus gravitating toward positivity.

In this blog series, Courteney, Carrie, Tina, Annie, Alison, and Amber graciously answered my questions, allowing them to reflect on their injury journeys with honesty, candor, and vulnerability, and allowing me to distill their wisdom into a form that will help you. This is the third of three blogs (you’ll find part 1 here and part 2 here) that I hope will provide you with abundant tools to navigate your injury journey. In this installment we’ll talk about finding a healthy attitude despite activity restrictions, and why your attitude will dictate your motivation after injury.

Although I’m interviewing world-class athletes, I’ve found through my research that it makes no difference. All levels of athletes share similar challenges. I define an athlete as anyone who uses movement to connect with their life or themselves. Injury leads to restricted movement, and that’s where things come unglued.

Carrie Tollefson

NAA mentor and Olympic runner Carrie Tollefson

Challenge number 1: Building a healthy attitude

Whether you’re feeling depressed, disconnected, in denial, or just plain down, understand that these responses are common; don’t beat yourself up over them.

Your life normally centers on training, nutrition, and taking care of yourself. You consider yourself strong, healthy, and resilient.

Then, out of the blue, injury comes knocking. Instantly, your life falls apart. Along comes denial and you convince yourself it’s not that bad. Then reality strikes–sometimes weeks later–and you realize…you are really hurt.

Any semblance of your routine is shattered. No running shoes. No bike. No sunshine and cool breeze on your face. No trail beneath you. No friends to laugh with or train with.

You think, “What next? What am I going to do now?”

That’s usually when the downward spiral begins. You enter into a deep, dark, cascading hole, the depths of which few people will ever understand.

Talk of depression is quasi-taboo in the world of sports (and frankly our culture as a whole). Depression, or any vulnerability for that matter, supposedly indicates weakness to which we should be immune.

In fact, depression can be an unwelcomed accompaniment to injury warranting immediate attention.* NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Alison Tetrick is one of many athletes who describes her post-injury attitude as “clinically depressed.”

Then there’s the next-door neighbor of depression–denial. NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Annie Ewart expresses an all-too-common acceptance time lag. She says, “Being sidelined from what you love to do is very tough. I had a very serious injury that ultimately ended my season, but I didn’t come to terms with that fact until 3 months afterwards.”

Annie Ewart

NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Annie Ewart

As I write this blog, an NFL commentator is explaining how Tony Romo’s (Dallas Cowboys quarterback) fractured back should be better this week since he’s had ten whole rest days to heal. For his sake, I sure hope she’s right, but this smells of perilous denial to me.

Let’s talk about digging out of the hole and building a healthy attitude.

*If you believe you may be clinically depressed, please seek the help of a qualified mental health professional now. Don’t wait. The more depressed you are, and the longer it persists, the slower your physical recovery will be.

Why building a healthy attitude matters
Notice I didn’t say “positive attitude.” Those words are, in my opinion, unconsciously overused. They indicate you must simply manifest goodness out of an injury. In my experience, and my clients’ experiences, this is unrealistic. You can’t just manifest–you actually have to do something to create change.

Gothic Mountain

So, I choose the words “healthy attitude.” A healthy attitude begets buckling into the injury rollercoaster. It means you actually feel, experience, and learn from the days you don’t care to get out of bed, as well as the days you make notable progress.

Good athletes master burying their feelings, right? In this case, what serves you well as an able-bodied athlete does not serve you well as in injured athlete. “Silver lining” the bad stuff, and you’ll obfuscate every dark corner that, if lit, would reveal a new tool you’d be able to use for the rest of your life. (By the way, the video I just linked to is a treasure; do yourself a favor and watch it. You’ll be thankful you did.)

Feeling your way through injury (or any life challenge, for that matter) is the gateway to lifelong resilience. If you feel nothing, you learn nothing, and you’re prone to make the same mistakes with the next challenge you face.

Feelings wheel

How to build a healthy attitude
Every tool you need for your mental recovery you already learned from your athletic endeavors. Recovery boils down to refocusing your focus.

As an athlete you are willing to: go beyond; follow strict training regimes and specific coaching; be compliant; work hard with diligence, motivation and persistence. The focus it takes to train is the focus you need for your recovery journey.

During my research with injured athletes, I almost immediately appreciated common threads and recipes for success among those who captured the opportunity accompanying injury. Instead of permitting injury to make them feel like they had just done battle with a group of Vikings, these folks were open to the rebuilding and learning process. They had healthy, realistic attitudes.

I encourage you to read the specifics on how to follow these recipes for success on my website page, The Road Back.

  • Fire the shoulds and coulds
  • Create and maintain a fear inventory
  • Have at least one person who tells you the truth (and listen to them)
  • Using your energy wisely

Also, I recommend a couple of my blogs–one on setbacks and another on emerging from bad days with more resilience–for healthy attitude-building guides.

NAA mentor and Olympic runner Carrie Tollefson, a veteran of many injuries, says, “I always came back a better athlete though. Not necessarily a fast athlete but a stronger more intelligent athlete. One does learn a lot about themselves when injured.” Carrie came back stronger because of her diligent daily work to create healthy attitude.

Remember: what you focus on grows. Following a series of life-threatening issues, NAA mentor and professional road and track cyclist Tina Pic’s attitude is one we can all adopt. She says, “My attitude post injury was that I was truly lucky to be alive.”

If you find yourself consumed with anger or sadness because of your injury, consider trying to channel Tina’s attitude. Every significant event in your life, even injury, has the potential for positive consequences. Try to identify these, write them down, and focus on them. It’s not easy, but it’s an important step.

Challenge number 2: Accepting activity restrictions and keeping yourself motivated

Carrie Tollefson understands activity restrictions cut both ways. “I was like a caged animal! I hated it and loved it at the same time. I hated how everyone else was running and I was hurting or cross training but I also loved the fact that I was working other muscles and focusing so much on getting back and kicking butt. I really tried to train my brain as much as I could while injured. It is a great time to visualize and figure things out,” she said.

More commonly, I hear clients express sentiments like Alison Tetrick’s. She said, “Cycling has been my outlet. Then you take a depressed girl that just wants to escape, and you take away the only outlet she knows to deal with emotional upheaval. In a way not being able to ride made my healing process so much harder. But it taught me to let the sport go.”

Alison Tetrick

NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Alison Tetrick

Why accepting your restrictions will keep you motivated
A tenacious bunch, athletes aren’t apt to let go of their sport. Sport equates to an identity, an outlet, and a support system. Yet, the stronger we hold on, the more energy we waste. Holding onto the past, even temporarily, will sap your motivation to move forward and lead you down the comparison hole.

Think of it like riding a bike. You need to look where you want to go. Your body will follow your mind.

Accepting that you’re not 100% but waking up every day and giving the best you have on that day sets you up for long-term success and motivation.

Acceptance doesn’t mean being resigned to a life surfing the sofa. Continue working toward being as healthy and strong as you can be at each stage of your recovery.

NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Annie Ewart offers the best guidance I can think of for staying motivated. She said, “I set daily, weekly, and monthly goals. These goals were not major; it would be anything from letting my shoulder dangle for a few minutes without support to walking 200m further than I did the day before. Having these small goals helped me track my improvement and kept me in a better mental place. It gave me purpose to each day, instead of sitting on the couch watching TV.”

How to keep yourself motivated
Create a daily mental training schedule to build your motivation. Work hard at your mental training–as hard as you work on your physical rehabilitation. Get started training your brain now. The sooner you do, the sooner you’ll build a healthy attitude, and the sooner you’ll recover.

I encourage you to read my blog on your most important tool following injury. It’ll give you lots of ideas to create a mental training schedule. And if your motivation has gone the way of downtube shifters, please read my blog on (re)finding your motivation.

It’s worth noting Carrie Tollefson’s wisdom isn’t an accident; it’s the result of hard work and a healthy mindset. She said, “I just kept thinking of the goals at hand. What was I working for; what did my sponsors need from me; and how much better am I going to be after this injury? I was unfortunate with the amount of injuries I have had during the prime of my career but to be honest, I have learned a lot about myself. Being an athlete is not easy. In order to see what talents we have we have to push our bodies to do things that most people wouldn’t think to do. With that, injuries arise and how we handle them shows the true character that we have. Stay tough, smart, and focused and you will get back! GET AFTER IT!”

Both Annie and Carrie emphasize setting goals as part of your mental training. Setting realistic goals with your medical and care teams will keep you motivated. Achieving them gives you hope.

As Annie suggests, start small with your goals. Big gains come from an accumulation of small gains. All those tedious physical therapy exercises will lead to big gains.

NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Amber Pierce lets you in on dirty little secret #17 about injury. She said, “It’s really hard not to compare where you are with where you want to be, and that can be overwhelming and demoralizing. But, I had some key people around me–my husband, my coach, and my sport psychologist–who helped me stay focused on the small victories, and take things one day at a time. When you do that, you really do see huge leaps and gains, which can turn things around mentally and emotionally. It’s hard to keep that focus all on your own, so it really helps to have people around you who truly believe in you and help you celebrate your progress.”

Injury leaves you with both a hole in your daily schedule and a choice. You can either fill the uncomfortable time hole with perseveration and angst, or you can work to build a healthy attitude, accept your [hopefully temporary] limitations, and set new goals. The result? You can re-discover all the motivation you had as an able-bodied athlete. It’s still there…inside you. It just needs a little nudge now and again.

I hope what Alison, Amber, Annie, Carrie, and Tina have so graciously shared has helped you realize that while you may value your body as your strongest weapon, your mind is more powerful. Now that you have time on your hands, make training your brain a top priority.

Go find out everything you can do to master your stress and use it as a motivator.

And remember these last two nuggets of wisdom. You’ll need them sooner or later.
From Tina Pic: “Since I have had so many injuries I know it is all a passing thing.”

From Alison Tetrick: “I separated sport from my identity. I am here for a reason, but now I have taken control of my choice, and will be the best I can be. I had to lose the sport to realize how much more I was with or without it.”

Interviewing 6 NAA mentors has been such a joy that I’ve decided to write one last blog in this series…an unexpected epilogue…a collection of thought-provoking, inspirational, and motivating quotes from the mentors. My hope is you feel inspired to print it and hang it on your mirror or keep it in your journal as you navigate your injury journey.

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