Back on your feet

Picking yourself up after you have fallen down a hole, physically mentally and emotionally, is hard. You probably feel very alone and all of the frightening and confusing challenges that go with that.

You are not alone! And you do have the resources to come through this – for all that it will probably feel like the hardest test of your life.

As an athlete, you have hidden skills ready to help you

Being an athlete has actually set you up with a lot of skills that you can repurpose and use to help you pick yourself up in the very real and practical issues that most athletes face with injury:

  • Juggling family pressures
  • Understanding and expressing the medical issues
  • Listening to your body
  • Goal-setting, measuring progress and replanning
  • Sticking to a rehab plan
  • Coping with pain
  • Looking after your hydration, nutrition and rest
  • Coping with dark places mentally
  • Addressing fundamental questions
  • Finding a community of like-minded people

This is an awesome list. But there are probably also some that it has not prepared you for, and all of your sport may even have strengthened some behaviours and beliefs that are not of benefit to you right now:

  • Coping with financial problems (especially if you cannot work)
  • Managing within the health system to find a care team
  • Curbing your competitive instinct
  • Adjusting how you see your control and influence (including over your own body)
  • Coping with fear (including addressing mortality)
  • Learning to ask for help
  • Adjusting to a new role with loved-ones and friends
  • Being kind to yourself
  • Developing new interests
  • Coping with legal action (if you are unlucky enough to have to follow a Personal Injury Claim)

It will all take time (sorry, I know how frustrating that is, but better to know the truth!)

I believe that the timeline of picking yourself up can be split into 4 phases – each of which have their own challenges and you need different support.

  1. Survival – you start by trying to just get through the pain of each day, and work out what you can do and what others have to do for you. For many this is a scary time of diagnoses, surgeries and a lot of pain.
  2. Rehabilitation – then things start to stabilise a bit and you are able to work to try and regain some of the function that you used to have. Whilst the physical pain may have reduced a little here, the mental and spiritual pain can be much more as frustration, sadness and anger can set in.
  3. Readjustment – then slowly, almost from nowhere, you mentally start to move through the mental cycle of changing to your new circumstances. This generally runs in parallel with the rehabilitation phase, and needs its own time and support. This may involve embedding new movement habits and bodycare routines, as well as different approaches to training.
  4. New life – and then slowly again, out of the ashes of the past comes your new life – possibly different from the past, but whether a continuation or a metamorphosis hopefully it is even more exciting and splendid than you can imagine.

Some of this is covered in the change cycle – which is an academic theory that I have seen best expressed on this lovely Canadian website: with the stages of:

  • Stage 1 – from loss to safety
  • Stage 2 – from doubt to reality
  • Stage 3 – from discomfort to motivation
  • Stage 4 – from discovery to perspective
  • Stage 5 – from understanding to awareness
  • Stage 6 – from integration to flexibility

We are each different, and you may find that your exact personal situation does not quite map onto this list of 20 aspects and 4 phases over time. But there is a start of a framework – like your training plan used to be when you were training. And it can help others to explore the specifics with you.

But given that this may all seem much more long-term than you can imagine at the moment, here are:

Five things that you can do right now – PHYSICALLY, MENTALLY, SPIRITUALLY

1.Give yourself a chance – be kind to yourself by nurturing your body and mind, with

  • soothing baths
  • aromatherapy candles and oils
  • a sensible routine of eating something at mealtimes,resting/sleeping at nighttime and maybe watching a box set one episode at a time, with a loved one at a specific time of day
  • real rest, ideally with 8 or more hours of sleep – even if it takes painkillers to get that in the short-term
  • talking to your body and visualising physical repair and healing

2. Help yourself to cope with being overwhelmed  – what you are going through would overwhelm anyone, so:

  • breaking down the key things for your recovery into big goals and then the sub-goals to get you there
  • reward yourself in some way for achieving each of those goals
  • don’t focus on future problems – not down things that need to be solved later and forget about them, as they are not for today
  • thinking about just one thing at once, and if your mind strays like an over-enthusiastic Labrador pup, bring it kindly back to the task in hand
  • ask for help – your friends probably feel as shocked as you and may not know what is needed for help – if it is someone to prepare some meals and bring them over, just ask!

3. Address despair – most athletes feel this – that you have lost so much and cannot see the path forward

  • Start to write 2-3 things down at the end of each day that were inspiring or great – ideally on nice coloured bits of paper – and post them into a gratitude box. Even better if for each of them you can draw out what you did to help create that outcome, and how it made you feel. I still talk these over each night before bed – my 3 Ws – What Went Well, my role in it and the effect on my emotions.
  • allow yourself to grieve if you want to – cry, scream, shout, whatever works for you – but set a time limit for each day, and stop at that time to revisit it again tomorrow, if you need to.
  • work to stay away from things that stress you mentally as well as physically. For many people at the moment this is the news each day – just turn it off and listen to some nice music instead.

4. Find your internal happy place – for all that your body and mind may feel completely broken at the moment, there is a deep and beautiful place inside you. You will need to dig deep to find it. Some ideas that might help:

  • try sitting in a place of worship and just listening
  • explore mindfulness and breathing techniques
  • lie down, close your eyes and listen to one of the free guided meditations on sites such as
  • find new (different) moments of intimacy with your loved one
  • build some music playlists that lift or calm or inspire you
  • go to places that inspire you – even if you have to be wheeled in a wheelchair (the benefit is that your carer often gets in free!)
  • rediscover your inner child – what did you really love to do or see as a child? Can you find TV programmes or (audio)books or some kind of experience that is within your capability that takes you back to that place?
  • Colouring – there are some great fun adult colouring books!
  • Start to study something that you find yourself interested in, but never had the time or chance to study – for instance they say history is wasted on the young! There are free short courses on all sorts of topics on  

5. Find someone who can hold a mirror up for you. There will be many people who have opinions and quick fixes, but you need to find the friend that will be your sense-checker. Someone to whom you can share where you are and the options of what you think you need to do next and they will listen and ask good questions to help you to a better place. Someone who will come to medical appointments with you and be that extra pair of eyes and ears to make sure that you got the answers that you needed. Someone who will read emails that you need to send and help you express your needs and concerns more clearly and in a way that will help you to get to results. This person does exist for you – and surprisingly most people say that it is usually not someone who was in their circle of closest friends before the injury. Seek them out. Include them and nurture them. They will be so important in your recovery and rehabilitation journey.

This is a picture that I keep as my rehabilitation hope – I look at it daily and am prepared to put in the difficult work to try to make it possible again