How does one athlete’s injury and fear of re-injury affect teammates? In sports like acrobatic gymnastics, group members rely on each other to perform each skill in their routine, and to perform them safely.
Season-ending and other traumatic injuries can potentially affect everyone, both psychologically and in terms of performance. Naturally, observing it can lead to unintentionally rehearsing (mentally) mistakes or other ways to get injured. Mentally rehearsed individual mistakes can spiral into actual mistakes, for individuals and teams. “Social contagion” impacts emotions, attitudes, or behaviors, leading in some instances- to teammates becoming injured.
How do we reduce social/injury contagion? Limited research suggests that coaches and other support staff should monitor teammates of injured athletes, for shifts in mood and behavior, while offering team counseling to those who may need it. Given increased risk of injury to other team members, injury prevention strategies should be trained and regularly utilized (some of the same RAMP skills we use for enhanced performance for everyone!): goal setting, self-talk, communication (enlisting social support), anxiety tolerance/reduction strategies such as paced breathing, and mental imagery.
Imagery (experiencing healing in your mind’s eye) can help athlete’s cope with negative emotions, serving as a tool to better tolerate and reduce re-injury anxiety. Imagery enhances mental toughness, increases self-efficacy (that sense of “I can” with specific skills), modulates stress levels, and helps athletes stick to their rehab regimens. When physical practice isn’t possible, imagery can be used in its place. Best practice is to combine mental imagery with actual physical practice, but sometimes for practical reasons – it can replace actual practice altogether.