When I work one-on-one with injured players, almost all, niggling and recurrent injuries are accompanied with niggling and recurrent fears, stress and other negative emotions. When I help these athletes uncover and release the stress and negative emotions linked to their injury and then show them how to activate their healing response something special happens: their physical healing started to accelerate.
My experience over many years of using these protocols is that the vast majority of athletes I work with who have lingering or niggly injuries are ready to perform when their coaches need them to. Other athletes I work with who are injured for months are typically fit to perform before their “due date” or on their due date with incredible conditioning.
More recently I have used these protocols in group work; when I join a team I am working with, I gather all the injured players in the squad in a semi-circle and explain the theory of how to accelerate physical healing. I then use these protocols for one player at a time and go around the circle working to activate and accelerate these athletes healing response. Usually, I find by the time I got half way, the rest of the circle have applied the protocols to accelerate their own physical healing, as they now understand what to do.
For many athletes being injured is the most difficult time of their season (and sometimes even career).
The physical pain of recovery, the constant progression and regression, the long hard hours of dedicated rehab and the challenge of trying to experience life without being able to do the thing you love further compound issues.
If an athlete’s identity is, “I am an athlete!” and now he or she is no longer competing then the question, “Who am I?” can be a tough question to answer and the source of much stress and anxiety.
An injured athlete’s mind is often filled with these types of thoughts:
“Will I make it back?” “Will I be able to play as well again?” “Will I make my way back into the side?” “When will my luck change?” “Why me?” “I’ve lost my chance!??!” “I’m back to square one…. And after all that hard work!” “It’s not fair!”, “I cant believe it, I have just got back here!” And “#$#&*#!”
Former Stanford Lecturer Dr Bruce Lipton in his book “The biology of belief” sheds some light on what is happening at a biological level for an athlete in rehab. Simply put the body has two core switches on a cellular level, Protection and Growth. Protection is the state that creates excess adrenaline and cortisol to prime your muscles into Fight/Flight mode, to save your life. 10 000 years ago this was a critical survival skill to stay alive for day-to-day life threatening events, such as avoiding being eaten by a hungry sabre-tooth tiger hiding behind a tree. However this survival response comes at a cost; whilst your system is flooded with cortisol and adrenaline, growth is negatively impacted.
In modern times we have much fewer day-to-day life threatening events, however the same protection mechanism can be triggered by ‘perceived’ threats. Even though these perceived threats aren’t real, physiologically the threat takes the same toll on the body, we call these perceived threat experiences stress.
Stress can be defined as negative perceptions and thoughts about our situation; most people have lots of this, and it lingers. The bad news for the body is that whilst this stress lingers, the body cannot optimally shift to Growth mode. The body needs to be in either one mode or the other – never both optimally. Years of evolution means that if both Growth and Protection is activated, the body chooses protection first at the expense of Growth. This is a great outcome for avoiding tigers and other life threatening situations; however this outcome can be significantly limiting for rehab, recovery and healthy living in general. Being in Growth mode is important for healthy living, and it is especially important for athletes – doubly so when they are injured. Even when we get to adulthood our body doesn’t stop growing; the body replaces billions of cells that wear out every day. The body does this automatically and efficiently, unless of course stress puts the handbrake up.
In a nutshell
If you are suffering from generalized stress, or specific stress (like negativity about an injury), your body’s recovery and healing process is impaired. You have put the handbrake up. This is an important principle for both injured athletes and those athletes that are pushing their body’s day in and day out and want to improve their chances of remaining injury free for the season.
The 7 Mental Steps to accelerate Physical Healing
Step 1: Work through the negatives and then activate the Physical Healing response
Your thoughts and beliefs about your injury, recovery and return to form are either working for you or against you. If stress or negative thinking is persistent you are on a daily basis undoing all those long hours in rehab and the gym. You are working against yourself. Injured players need to rethink, re-examine and reframe everything related to their injury.
Your rehab needs to be a positive and possibly even an exciting process. The first step to shifting your thinking is acceptance.
- Accept that you have been injured.
- Accept that you have to start over again.
- Accept that it will be a long process requiring dedication.
- Accept the fact that life is not fair.
You need to clear the emotional decks. You can do this by removing all the negatives that you have knowingly or unknowingly linked to your injury or rehab. Once this is done the next step is to develop new positive beliefs and then activate the physical healing response.
- Look at your injury if you can, and focus on it and then in your mind go inside and say this to yourself out loud: “I give myself full permission to fully and completely let go of any negativity linked to my injury or recovery.
- When you use a permission statement you will typically get one of two responses:
Response One: You will feel a release, similar to a subtle weight leaving your body or it might feel like you are breathing something out with a deeper breathe.
Response Two: You will experience some sort of obstacle or objection that emerges as you sit with the permission statement. This may take 10 seconds or more to emerge. Be patient with this work. This objection may be in the form of some physical resistance in the body, a thought or a statement like, “No it doesn’t work like this.” Or, “It’s not that simple.” Regardless of the objection, we need to uncover the structure of your beliefs and thinking that has created that objection so that you can fully release it.
- Tease out the structure of the objection: As you focus on or think about your objection ask yourself the question, “What belief holds this in place?” This is going to be a slow answer, and as such you will often need to sit with the question for about 10 to 15 seconds. To help find the answer gaze at your stomach area as you ask the question.**Once you have this answer, ask yourself the question, what does this mean to me? And write down that answer on the bottom of the page. Once you have that answer, ask yourself again, so what does this mean to me? And write down that answer above it. Keep repeating this question and answer process until you can’t answer any more “So what does this mean to me?” questions. This will give you the full structure of the presenting objection.
- Tease out the structure of the objection version two: Some people will struggle with the “What belief holds this in place question?” so if you do, focus on the objection and ask the question, so what does this mean to me? (Then write down the answer at the bottom of the page.” Once you have that answer, ask yourself again, “What does this mean to me?” and write down your next answer above the first. Repeat this process until you can’t find anymore answers.
- Release the CEO or top Meaning linked to the Objection: Once you have written down all the meanings (from the bottom of the page upwards), and you have uncovered the top meaning or CEO meaning. The CEO meaning is the last meaning you have written down, at the top of the page. The CEO or highest meaning has the power to shift the meanings under or below it, so if we release/change the CEO meaning we can create significant change. Have a look at your CEO meaning and decide if you want to keep it? (Probably not) Go inside and say, “I give myself full permission to let go of X” where X is that CEO meaning – you will either get the feeling of release as shared earlier, or you will experience some level of objection. If there is an objection you need to work through this next layer of resistance/objection in the same way as before, to find that layer’s CEO meaning. This part sometimes needs to be repeated a few times.Some objections will be fully released at the presenting objections CEO level, others will have more layers.Once you have released the CEO of the outermost layer, go back to previous layer CEO’s (like an onion) to release them until all the CEO’s are gone and you have released all the negativity related to the injury. Test this by going back to Step 1, if you are “clear” the permission statement will provide peace of mind, if you are not, go back into process to remove that layer of objection.
- Create a new positive empowering meaning for what was once negative
Now that all the related negativity to the injury is gone, find a new way to think about your injury. Give it a new meaning, and give yourself permission to believe that about it. For example, “I give myself full permission to enjoy my game again and to recover with a clear mind.” Or, “I give myself full permission to focus on the fascinating path to recovery, knowing that I will be a better athlete and person for this experience.” or, “I give myself full permission to trust my body’s healing process which I am doing everything I can to support!” If there is resistance to this permission statement, tease out the structure of the objection and release it until you can own the new positive belief about your injury.
- Once all the negativity is cleared, we need to activate the Healing Response:
Focus on the area that you are injured and go inside your mind and say to yourself, “I give myself full permission for my body to heal perfectly just the way it knows how, and I ask that my body accelerates this process by 100 times or more!” ***
- Supercharge the healing activation with positive meaning
As you feel the healing activation taking place, focus on it and ask yourself the question, so having this, what does this mean to me? Then when you have that answer, ask “So what does that mean to me?” as many times as you can until you run out of answers. These answers should all be positive, if any aren’t, go to the dealing with objections piece to uncover the structure of the negative belief and release whatever is in the way of this positivity.
Now that the negativity holding in the Protection (fight/flight) switch has been released and the healing response has been activated ; the next steps are about finding the best strategy and attitude for the process of recovery so you can further optimize the process. Below are some strategies to do just that.
Step 2: Face reality and be as well informed as possible
Find out as much as you can about your injury, what has happened, what it should look and feel like, what should happen, how it should happen, and find out about your general progression and path to recovery. The more information you know the more you can actively be part of the process, as well as help manage difficult questions from other people and sometimes even yourself. BE informed! By facing reality the unknown has no more power over you, however tough the information is, find out so you can use all your energy to focus on recovery.
A tip here: If you are that one athlete who has a great attitude to rehab, your physio, bio, conditioning coach or whoever you are working with will have a better attitude to working with you – as he/she will be pleasantly surprised by you being the exception. Their better mood and focus means you will have higher quality care which is likely to lead to faster recovery.
Step 3:Turn the whole experience into a value add
Can you find an opportunity in this time? What value-add can you focus on for you personally or for your sport that turns this time into a bonus? Coaching? Extra swimming? Cycling? Developing complimentary skills (balance, eyes, core power) it could even be in the form of studying something interesting that you normally wouldn’t have time for? If it works for you, you could visualize your training to keep your body in touch with what is required and keep you involved in your performance? Bottom line, what do you need to do during this period so that you are a better athlete and human being when you are ready to play again than you were before the injury.
You have no power to control what is happening with your team, or in your competitive area whilst you are out from a performance point of view. If you worry about that, then you are taking away energy from your healing. Control the controllables, what you think, feel, say and do – make everything in your power part of your successful recovery.
Step 4: Count upwards not backwards: Create milestones to work towards and celebrate progress and count your successes
Can you set mini milestones for yourself and celebrate your progress? Can you also give your body a break that you KNOW there will be a bit of progress and regression? (a lot less if you manage your stress and negative emotions.) Always focus on what you have achieved so far in your rehab, rather than comparing it to how things used to be. Count upwards – not backwards. If you are feeling frustrated by today’s lack of progress, then you need to review the progress of the week, and if are feeling frustrated by the lack of progress in the week, you need to review your progress from a monthly point of view.
Step 5: Be present and engaged when doing rehab, make the small steps count
Can you be 100% present and focused when doing your rehab, like Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said, can you have your mind in your muscle when doing your exercise? Can you visualize all the recovery and strengthening that you are doing (based on your newly found knowledge) to help make your physical rehab more accurate and powerful, as well as something you can do mentally before bed. Some athletes aren’t motivated or excited to do thirty 1kg reps to build up foundational movement and flexibility, as it is not as exciting as a big squat or power lift. However those thirty 1kg reps are probably the most important thing you can do in that moment to get you back to your superstar best. Treat them that way, and you will get there faster.
Step 6: Learn the difference between Danger pain and Recovery Pain
As you recover your body will give you feedback in the form of pain. Some pain will be the pain associated with a healthy rewiring of the nerves and redeveloping basic function and other pain will be the Danger Pain of pushing too far too fast. It’s important to know the difference between the two and take the appropriate action. When you are feeling pain, focus on it, look at the area if you can and if you can’t look at your belly and ask the question, “Is this danger pain or recovery pain?” Sit with the question and then as you listen to your body’s answer which may be very subtle, take the appropriate action. You may need some practice to accurately interpret pain feedback from your body, so keep on practising asking the question and track to see if your interpretation fits, over time you will become very in tune with your body’s pain messages.
Step 7: Healing is a process – and patience is part of that process
Can you be patient? Remember the opposite of patience can sometimes be in the form of stress. Can you commit fully to the process so that you come back when you body is truly ready, and if you do this process effectively, your body will be in better condition than when you had the injury; you will be more positive and mentally tougher, and hopefully a more well rounded person for the experience. Typically an athlete with a great attitude to rehab returns mentally tougher as they know how hard they have worked and how much they want this; and that gives them an edge.
**This question uses Dr L.Michael Hall’s Meta-States model to help us find the beliefs that hold our beliefs in place, this model is the cornerstone of Neuro-Semantics and is discussed further in the sports context in the book Raising Talent)
*** This healing instruction is inspired by Alex Loyd’s fantastic book ,”The Healing codes” where he uses it in a very different healing protocol.