Injuries can arise through a lack of emotional control, but you can train your mind to withstand the risks. Dr Josephine Perry reports on her research

Athletes tread a fine, balancing line. They need to push hard enough to improve but not so hard they risk hurting themselves. On the wrong side of this line athletes can find themselves struggling with injuries, incessant niggles or overtraining syndrome accompanied by deep fatigue and a downward spiral of performance.

Last year I studied almost 600 amateur endurance athletes – a mix of runners, cyclists, swimmers and triathletes – to try to understand if there are traits in some athletes that mean they were more susceptible to injury and overtraining than others. Here is an overview of my findings.

Injury levels

From my findings, I saw that injuries were highly prevalent. Ninety-one per cent of the athletes had suffered at least one significant injury in the last five years.

Half of those had the same injury more than once, perhaps linked to the fact that more than a third admitted they returned to training much quicker than they were advised to. The athletes on average got injured every 17 months: although this varied considerably among the individuals who participated in the study.

There is no ‘standard’ injury time. Surprisingly, rather than injuries being caused by trips, or crashes, or an instant pain, the majority (55%) start from those annoying niggles that we often try to ignore.

Who gets injured

Two thirds (66%) of the athletes I interviewed had either a club or private coach. Some said they had taken on the coach because they were very competitive and needed holding back from pushing too hard. Interestingly, the coached athletes suffer significantly fewer injuries than self-trained athletes. Others mentioned to their coach when they felt niggles and their training was immediately adapted.

The group with the most repeat injuries and who took the least notice of the advice given to them by a professional on how long to rest and recover for were those who feel they have a lack of control over events, have more negative feelings about themselves, deal poorly with adversity and panic in a crisis.

Michael Sheard, a sport psychologist who specialises in this issue, says: “High levels of emotional control can act as the antidote to adrenalin, playing havoc with an athlete’s discipline.” Without the emotional control, the adrenalin levels rise and an athlete is unable to stay calm or think rationally. Their discipline towards dealing effectively with a niggle or an injury goes out of the window.

Risk of burnout

While sports injuries are well understood, overtraining syndrome is much more of a mystery to many. Usually experienced as an unexpected decline in performance accompanied by persistent fatigue, it can make any exercise feel much more difficult than it used to. It might bring with it depression, irritability, loss of motivation, insomnia and changes in resting heart rate.

Thought to be caused by excessive training over a long period with inadequate rest, our study found 11% of amateur athletes had suffered from overtraining syndrome and that it was twice as common in women (16%) than men (7%). Those more susceptible to overtraining were again those with low levels of emotional control but also those with high levels of neuroticism, suggesting if you are worrying or panicking that you haven’t trained hard or long enough you may ignore and override your body telling you it needs rest.

All about control

So, we found that an athlete’s level of emotional control seems to have a big impact on rate and recurrence of injury. But how can you change your mindset to deal more positively with events? We interviewed those with really high levels of emotional control to understand how they approach their sports and their injuries.

Firstly, we found them to be incredibly thorough and meticulous; they read up on their sport, follow rules and guidance to the letter and become highly focused on how they train.

They have an intense awareness of their bodies, really understand how their body works in each stage of activity and then use this information to make constant feedback, helping them form decisions on the severity of a niggle or judge between different types of pain. “I call it surfing the wave. At just the right point you start backing off,” one athlete told us.

What to do

Discovering that low emotional control may mean we are more susceptible to overtrain and become re-injured allows us to investigate our own levels of control and adapt our training approach if necessary.

If you think you may have low emotional control, consider four statements devised by Sheard:

1. I worry about performing poorly.
2. I am overcome by self-doubt.
3. I get anxious by events I did not expect or cannot control.
4. I get angry and frustrated when things do not go my way.

Responding ‘very’ or ‘mostly true’ to these suggests your levels of control could be higher. If this is the case, then you need to keep a much tighter eye on niggles and tiredness and bear in mind your propensity to push a little bit too hard.

You can also work to improve your levels of control. Sheard suggests using strategies like “goal setting, visualisation, relaxation, concentration and thought-stopping, which have shown success in helping injured athletes develop and maintain desirable levels of emotional control.” Putting these into action may help you stay on the right side of the line, and away from injury or illness.

» Dr Josephine Perry is a sport psychology consultant at Performance in Mind