As many of you reading this already know, ACL reconstruction surgery is far more than just a physical process. There is also a mental side to coming back from an ACL injury. The recovery process requires a great deal of mental fortitude in order to recover fully and return to sport with confidence. The mental aspects of ACL reconstruction include:
- Staying positive in the face of a daunting, unknown, challenge
- Practicing consistency and discipline in your recovery approach
- Maintaining faith in the process, despite many ups and downs along the way
- Navigating the sometimes difficult terrain of knowing how hard to push yourself without risking further injury
- Figuring out a way to return to sport with confidence in your previously injured knee
When it comes to avoiding an ACL retear, research somewhat surprisingly suggests that mentally recovering from ACL injuries is just as important (if not more important) than the physical side of recovery, so it is important to take seriously.
This article will focus on a few tactical solutions to deal with the mental part of tearing an ACL, especially as it relates to an athlete.
Tactic #1 – Visualize And Feel
This is a tactic I’ve practiced over the years to maintain a mindset of positivity and gratitude in life, and it can be especially powerful when you’re trying to overcome mental blocks associated with an ACL injury. Set 7 minutes aside each day and try the following.
- Think of 3 moments in life that you are grateful for. They can be from the past 24 hours or from years ago. Spend 1 minute allowing yourself to reminisce on each of these moments. While taking your mind back to these moments, try to “feel” and reexperience the emotion of those moments.
- Take 1 minute and focus on your breath. With each inhale, imagine positive energy coming into your body and making its way down to your knee.
- Think of 3 things you want to accomplish, either during the next day or long term. This a great time to think about your long term recovery goals and what sport/activity you want to return to. Spend 1 minute on each goal, and visualize yourself accomplishing the goal. As you visualize, allow yourself to “feel” what you want to feel when you accomplish those tasks. For instance, if you’re visualizing your return to sport, think about the exact movements you’ll be performing, plays you’ll be making, and how you’ll feel (confident, strong, energized, etc.) when you’re finally participating again.
Depending on whether or not you’ve practiced forms of visualization in the past, this may feel a bit goofy or awkward at first, but trust me – it does wonders for maintaining a positive, gracious mindset and instilling confidence when it’s time to return to play.
Tactic #2 – Create A System For Restoring Confidence In Movement
When it’s time to return to your favorite activity, it will be difficult for most athletes to just “jump right in.” You may feel as if there is a mental block restricting you from moving the way you used to.
This is perfectly normal.
From a mental standpoint, think about the recovery process as a wide gap between two cliffs. Currently, you stand on the side of the cliff that is slightly fearful of movement. When you reach the other side of the cliff, you’ll be fully confident in movement again.
If you’re like most people, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to just jump from one cliff to the other. Therefore, your job during the recovery process is to build a bridge to the other side of the cliff, one plank at a time.
How do you build the bridge? By gradually exposing your body to the movements you are feeling fearful or not confident about.
In order to convert this analogy to a practical application, let’s take a look at the example of returning to sprinting. If you haven’t done anything more than walking in a long time, it will probably seem like the other side of the bridge is impossible to reach. Therefore, you’ll need to figure out a way to gradually expose the body to “sprinting-like” activity, restoring confidence each step along the way. Here’s a way you might do it.
- Walk 10 laps of a specified distance (let’s say 100 feet). As you walk, note how you are feeling. Is it painful, tight, weak? If you haven’t experienced any pain at a level greater than 3 out of 10, proceed to the next step.
- Slightly increase the intensity of the walk. This may be as simple as picking up the pace of your walk or you may choose to try a 25% intensity jog. Perform 10 laps at the same distance as the walk. Again, note how you are feeling. Is it painful, tight, weak? If you haven’t experienced any pain at a level greater than 3 out of 10, step up the intensity again.
Continue this process until you reach an intensity that causes elevated pain levels (greater than 3 out of 10) or a duration that has completely fatigued you. When you hit the end point, write down exactly the amount of work you were able to do. Over time, we’d like to see that you’re able to operate at just a little bit higher intensity before excessive pain or fatigue kick in.
With a little bit of creativity, this concept can be applied to virtually any activity. By gradually exposing yourself to increased intensities, you’ll slowly but surely build that bridge to restore confidence in the activity you’re looking to return to.
Tactic #3 – Don’t Be Afraid To Seek Outside Help
There are professionals out there who know exactly what to do to help you recover mentally after ACL reconstruction surgery. You may know them by titles such as “sports psychologist” or “mental conditioning coach”.
Typically, these people work with athletes to put their minds in an optimal state for performance. We’ve even worked with a few who train military special ops to do things like jump out of planes. In other words, these are smart people with bad a** mental training techniques.
If you’re struggling with mental recovery, please reach out to one of these professionals. In my opinion, working with a sports psychologist or mental conditioning coach should be standard care for recovery from ACL injuries and surgery.
If you’re interested in working with me and my team to build quad strength quickly and avoid atrophy after ACL surgery, click the link below to find out if you qualify for a 2 day trial.