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How does trauma affect athletic performance?

The Crucial Interplay of Trauma, Psychology, and Meaning in Athlete Success

Instinctively we know that trauma - as a result of injury, or sustained through a life experience - can have a negative impact on performance amongst other things! And in the sporting world, where success is often a matter of small margins, our state of mind is vital.

Working with athletes - whether serious amateurs or professionals - I have seen the negative over-reach of trauma playing out in mind and body influencing an athlete's journey.

Recent advances in sports psychology and research underline that addressing these psychological elements is paramount for athlete success [1]. In this short blog, I want to suggest three ways trauma plays out in the athlete's journey and the broad interventions I use - and yes, one of them is the meaning-based approach of Logotherapy ;). My driving motivation is simple, I want to see people operate from a place of wholeness.

1. The Weight of Underperformance due to Trauma: Every athlete, regardless of their discipline, relies heavily on mental fortitude. Post-traumatic symptoms, such as lapses in concentration or heightened anxiety, can directly influence decision-making, motivation, and even physical fluidity during competitions. Traumatic experiences can cloud mental clarity, leading to underperformance[2].

2. Trauma as a Preemptive to Injuries: Beyond the immediate cognitive and emotional ramifications, trauma has been linked to increased susceptibility to physical injuries[3]. Stress-induced muscle tension and imbalances, combined with potentially riskier behavior post-trauma, create a physiological environment more prone to strains or other injuries[3]. There is the hint of overcompensating or doubling down to prove to themselves and others that they are ok. It is rarely sustainable.

3. Recovery Challenges with Traumatic Baggage: I have yet to speak to an athlete who has not been injured! I have been known to suffer from bouts of achilles tendonitis, forcing me to take extended periods of time out of running. I then get frustrated and low because I can't get back to it quickly and miss the mental balance and clarity - and it's just for fun, not like an athlete whose living may be on the line.

Injury recovery in athletes is as much a mental process as it is a physical one. Those grappling with trauma may experience a slower physical recovery, often stemming from feelings of helplessness or a psychological reluctance to engage fully in the rehabilitation process[4].

Yet, understanding these challenges offers a blueprint to optimise athlete success. By harnessing approaches that cater to the physiological, cognitive, and existential facets of an athlete, there's potential to not only mitigate these challenges but also elevate an athlete's performance.

4. Comprehensive Interventions: I like an 'open systems approach to coaching and therapy. Tailoring interventions, like Somatic techniques, Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), Mental Imagery, and Logotherapy, have emerged as useful tools to combat the effects of trauma and other psychological hindrances[5,6,7]. It is important that I deeply listen to 'what and how' the client languages any issues and pay careful attention to body language in order to serve them with the 'best' combination of interventions.

  • Bottom-Up Approaches: These primarily somatic techniques, including various iterations of bilateral stimulation, directly tackle the physiological repercussions of trauma. They aid in fostering optimal arousal levels and improving the body's responses.

  • Top-Down Techniques: By addressing cognitive processes, these methodologies, including CBT and mental imagery, allow athletes to reframe negative thought patterns, boost decision-making capabilities, and even enhance motor skills[8,9].

  • Meaning-Based Approaches: Rooted in Viktor Frankl's logotherapy, these interventions help athletes derive meaning and purpose from their experiences. By focusing on future goals, athletes can channel their energies positively, pivotal for both preventing injuries and steadfast recovery[10].

The intertwined relationship between trauma, psychological health, and athletic performance can lead to a more holistic approach to training and rehabilitation.

For an athlete to truly succeed, they must be in peak condition, not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally - and finding meaning and purpose is all part of the process.

Author references

  1. Smith, R.E. (1986).

  2. Bryant, R. A., & Harvey, A. G. (1999).

  3. Orchard, J. (2002).

  4. Brewer, B. W., Andersen, M. B., & Van Raalte, J. L. (1995).

  5. Arvinen-Barrow, M., et al. (2017).

  6. Slimani, M., et al. (2016).

  7. Ievleva, L., & Terry, P. C. (2008).

  8. Arvinen-Barrow, M., et al. (2017).

  9. Slimani, M., et al. (2016).

  10. Schulenberg, S. E., et al. (2008).

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