With championship season and summer racing upon us, healthy athletes are at their peak fitness and performing at their best. Those less fortunate injured or recovering souls watch on wistfully, willing themselves to be a part of the action.
These athletes long for the thrill of competition, the endorphin rush, the sense of accomplishment.
The absence of these emotions is enough to give any athlete a fear of missing out (FOMO). But coupled with the acute awareness that fellow teammates or competitors are not only having these incredible experiences, but also progressing and surpassing them in the sport, this feeling is burdensome to one’s mental well-being. FOMO is defined as a “pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent.” While it is more commonly thought of in a sense of social media, the idea of FOMO is very easily translated to the sports world.
So what is it that as athletes, or just as human beings, leads us to the unpleasant feelings associated with FOMO? One theory that seems to offer some explanation is the self-determination theory. This theory is concerned with understanding the factors that contribute to motivation and psychological well-being. It states that three basic psychological needs must be met to have optimal feelings of vitality and well-being:
- Competence – ability to control outcome and experience mastery of a task
- Autonomy – desire and ability to function independently
- Relatedness – universal need to feel closeness or connectedness with others
How does this theory relate to sport? Most athletes will be quick to say that sport plays a vital role in his or her life and in multiple ways. In general, the function of sport in an athlete’s life breaks down to:
Sense of Identity
Overtime, an athlete begins to define him or herself by his or her sport (i.e., ‘I am a runner, cyclist, soccer player, etc.). With all the time and energy spent training and optimizing performance, it is no wonder an athlete identifies so strongly to his or her sport. It is not only how an athlete sees him or herself, but also how others begin to define that person. In team sports, this sense of identity expands to the athlete’s role on the team. This sense of identity gives an athlete a sense of relatedness to teammates, coaches and the sport as a whole. It also gives an athlete a sense of autonomy to have this unique identity as an athlete.
Source of Self-Esteem
Sports can be a great source of self-confidence. They provide positive reinforcement and feedback through goal attainment and performance achievements. Athletes are also able to have an objective platform to reap the rewards of their hard work. Building new skills and overcoming obstacles are huge sources of self-esteem, as well as gaining outside recognition from coaches, family or the media. This self-esteem gives an athlete a sense of independence and confidence (autonomy), as well as intensifying feelings of competence in not just sport but life.
A Way to Cope with Stress
Athletes and non-athletes alike will attest that exercise is a great constructive way to deal with stress. I personally have found that I am able to better sift through my thoughts and problem-solve while on a run. Sport often offers a safe haven from daily stressors and a healthy way to channel frustration or anger. Often without an outlet such as sport, a person will internalize stress. This can lead to health issues such as ulcers or high blood pressure. Exercise also offers endorphins, which can aid in improving mood. By coping with stress in a healthy way, an athlete can overcome challenges or stressors. This in turn increases their sense of independence (autonomy) and feelings of competence in their abilities.
Built in Support System
Sports are a great source of comradery and friendship. From my own experience, I have found that being a member of a sports team has made major life transitions much easier. Being a member of a team provides an instant support system of coaches and teammates who can relate with and aid in an athlete’s struggles. In addition, this support system is a great form of social interaction and gives an athlete a sense of belonging (relatedness).
Now that it has been demonstrated that sports play a huge role in an athlete’s life, what sort of effect does injury have on an athlete when sport is removed?
While the physical ramifications are fairly obvious, the mental and emotional pain is often far more devastating. After Cocoa Elite Ambassador and elite runner Gina Bartolacci Miller experienced severe posterior tibial tendonitis that sidelined her from her sport, she expressed, “I think the emotional and psychological effects (of injury) may have even been greater than the physical component. The feeling of being out of shape is awful for me. I didn’t feel like myself, and I just wasn’t a very happy person during this time.”
When looking at the psychology of an injury, an athlete will experience both internal and external loss. More specifically, an athlete will undergo a decrease in self-esteem, a decrease in independence, loss of identity and loss of physical health. In response to these losses, an athlete will often experience:
Injury often means removal from training and team practices, leading to a feeling of disconnectedness. Along with this disconnectedness, envy of teammates and competitors can occur. While common, these feelings can lead to guilt and shame. The loss of relatedness can compound these feelings. After experiencing multiple setbacks and relapses from a rare form of Vasulitis, Cocoa Elite Ambassador and elite track athlete Brandon Hudgins noted his unpleasant feelings of being sidelined, “It’s hard training beside people and watching people that you knew you could beat go on and finish high at USA Championships, win money, and make headlines. It can cause you to be very angry and carry that hot stone in your chest.”
Cocoa Elite Ambassador and elite marathoner Aubrey Moskal echoed these feelings after she suffered a season-ending stress fracture and labrum tear, “I won’t lie when I say to watch friends and teammates run and compete wasn’t like a knife to the heart! Of course I was happy for them but I have such a love and desire to be out running that it was painful to watch others.”
Injury can often increase levels of anxiety in several regards. The loss of identity is a huge stressor leading to a loss of autonomy. There is also a fear of when and if an athlete will heal, as well as if an individual will ever be the same athlete as he or she was. After suffering a hamstring avulsion, I experienced anxiety with every run or new activity. I had a fear of re-injury, a fear of not progressing, and a fear of never being able to fully return to the sport I love.
When an athlete’s biggest form of enjoyment and often times employment is lost via injury, depression can quickly set in. This can lead to feelings of worthlessness and a large decline in a sense of competency. Hudgins disclosed, “I have picked up anxiety and depression issues because of my choice to run with Vasculitis. For the longest time I was very bitter and angry about the hand I had been dealt in life.”
As discussed earlier, sport allows an athlete to challenge him or herself, attain goals and obtain a sense of worth. When injury removes these confidence builders, there is a loss of competence and autonomy. I personally realized after my injury that I tie a large portion of my worth and identity with my running. When a huge source of your confidence is removed, it is very easy to feel worthless and become disoriented in your function in the world.
Injury clearly negatively affects the basic psychological needs associated with self-determination theory, leading to increased feelings of FOMO. If healthy coping strategies are not utilized, these feelings of FOMO can lead to unhealthy habits that could be detrimental to an athlete. Some helpful coping strategies include:
Allow yourself to mourn. You will only hurt yourself more by bottling up your emotions. You are allowed to be upset, and letting yourself be sad is part of the healing process.
Instead of thinking of all the ‘what ifs’ or ignoring the injury, accept the situation for what it is. By accepting reality, you are able to make a plan for recovery and stick to it.
Set New Realistic Goals
While you may not be able to chase your original performance goals while injured, you can celebrate the small victories of rehabilitation. Setting rehab goals and celebrating recovery milestones can be just as rewarding as competition goals. By not continuing to focus on past goals, you allow yourself to move forward in your recovery. Throughout my hamstring recovery, I have learned to really celebrate the small achievements. Such as walking without crutches, my first full run and my first workout.
A positive attitude can make all the difference in a speedy recovery. Alternatively, a negative attitude can impede healing and only makes you and those around you miserable. Bartolacci Miller adds, “Aside from trying to stay positive, I would advise others to focus on what they can control. If you can’t run, can you still do strength work or things that will improve your running or sport?”
Find Support in Others
Seeking out support from family, friends, teammates or coaches can be a huge help in the recovery process. By remaining connected to others you can also decrease feelings of isolation. Moskal notes, “There were days when you just needed a positive message to get you back on track and my family and friends were always there.” Hudgins echoes, “Emotional support is especially important. Having a family that is 100% behind you can make all the difference in the world.”
Explore Passions Outside of Sport
By trying to pursue other passions, you can grow your sense of identity outside of being an athlete. This can also increase confidence by mastering new skills and challenging yourself in new ways. Hudgins has been able to use his illness to inspire others and to pursue other interests. He states, “I’ve chosen to channel my energy to other things like my work with the Vasculitis Foundation, my blog or my book.”
Moskal’s love for education and teaching helped her through her injury. “I will always be a runner as long as my legs will carry me. But I know I won’t always be able to run at an elite level. When I can’t do that anymore, my passion for teaching will always be there. I became so grateful for my education and the school I work at.” She further adds, “You are more than your sport and no matter what your family and friends will love and support you.”
Patience is important to both physical healing and mental healing. Rushing back can lead to re-injury and the psychological disappointment of setbacks. You can’t move forward if you are always taking one step forward and two steps backward. Hudgins advises, “Patience and trust your talent. Fitness can come back a lot quicker than you think. Listen to your body and don’t overdo it. Have faith in your talent and workout ethic to still get you to your goals, despite the obstacle that is now in front of you.”
Find Ways to Stay Connected to Sport
While you may not be able to compete while injured, you can still remain connected to your sport. Try being a spectator, coach or volunteer. This allows you to gain a new perspective and increase feelings of relatedness. This past year as I recovered from my hamstring surgery, I was fortunate enough to acquire an assistant track coach position at Le Moyne College. It not only allowed me to stay present in the track world, but gave me new respect for my own coaches. In addition, it gave me a big sense of fulfillment to share my knowledge and experiences with others.
Embrace the Time Off
Being away from training stinks, but it can allow you to do things you normally could not, such as go on vacation, attend family functions or try something new. Time off also allows you to focus on things that may usually fall by the wayside such as proper biomechanics. Since my time off from competing, I have been fortunate to take several trips, explore new places and reconnect with family and friends I have not seen for years.
Use It As a Learning Experience
Injuries often teach hard lessons. Learning from past mistakes and improving on weaknesses makes a stronger athlete. Bartolacci Miller states, “Going through this period taught me that I need to pay attention to my body and let it recover. I know being injured is something I never want to have to endure again!” Moskal adds, “I learned so much! Not to take pain free steps for granted (walking or running!). Running is such a privilege. God has given me the gift to put one foot in front of the other. What I do with the talent is all thanks to him, I also learned to treat my body with respect.”
Observing the physical and psychological pain of injuries, it is no wonder that an athlete can be susceptible to FOMO. While it is only natural to have feelings of loss and even jealousy, by engaging in healthy coping strategies, an athlete can overcome injury. In fact, he or she can actually return a more determined and much wiser individual. By remaining patient and positive, an injury can turn feelings of FOMO into opportunities for continued growth and success inside the sport and out.
*A big thank you to Gina Bartolacci Miller, Brandon Hudgins and Aubrey Moskal for sharing their injury experiences and contributions to this blog.
Heather Wilson is an Elite Track Runner. She became the 60th U.S. woman in history to break the 4:30 barrier in the mile, clocking in at an impressive 4:29.39. Heather is currently rehabbing and strengthening her hamstring avulsion.
All bloggers receive a small compensation for the contributions.*