Athletes who have been “bred” from youth to excel in their sport are laser-focused on that sport. They eat, drink, and breathe their sport of choice and often their entire life focuses only on their sports career. But, what happens when the unspeakable happens? One tackle, one wrong fall, one practice session where things go wrong. How will that athlete respond? What are the mental blocks that must be overcome in order for the athlete to come back 100% from injury or to develop a post-sport Plan B?
I recently had the privilege of speaking with Robert Andrews, Founder & Director of The Institute of Sports Psychology in Houston, Texas. His areas of expertise, primary areas of focus, and passion are working with athletes to help them realize their peak potential as an athlete, helping injured athletes overcome the emotional, mental, and spiritual effects of their sports-related injury, and teaching coaches how to coach at their best when things are at their worst.
Robert played on a Texas State Championship football team and as an athlete suffered his own serious sports-related injuries in high school and college. As a psychotherapist, he received extensive training in performance enhancement and trauma resolution. He began to realize the extensive impact of sports injuries on performance and how these injuries hold athletes back not only in sports, but also in life. The Institute of Sports Psychology is the culmination of his dream to dramatically impact the way performance and recovery is addressed and treated in athletes.
Q: At what stage of injury do clients come to you for help?
Andrews: I usually see athletes after they have been cleared to play as “100%” but are still struggling with fears of re-injury, apprehension and, in the worst cases, depression and anxiety. If I can see them before they have surgery and during the recovery process, the athlete has a much more positive and empowering experience on the road back. They return to play confidently and ready to go. They are truly 100%.
Q: How do you initially address the mental and emotional strain that accompanies an injured athlete in order to give them hope?
Andrews: I normalize it. I suffered many injuries as an athlete. I share my own stories. This always seems to help them open up about what they are going through. Then I do a complete work up of their injury history. Specifically, imagery that is associated with the worst parts of being injured. This gives me specific information about what unresolved mental and emotional blocks their mind is struggling to process and integrate. From this information, we go to work on teaching the athlete's mind how to calm down. They have a context they can work with as it pertains to their injury. In the beginning of our work together, this information is largely unconscious. When we make it conscious, it helps them understand why they are still bothered by the injury. They can see a way out.
Q: How does your approach differ for an athlete who will return to his/her sport and one who has a career-ending injury?
Andrews: With an injury that is a setback, we work to return them to play with a sense of confidence and a belief that their body is strong and powerful. With a career-ending injury there is a profound sense of grief that the athlete has to work through in addition to the shock they have been through with the injury. We also work to channel their passion into some other area of life that helps them keep that competitive fire and passion alive.
Q: How would you describe the depth of emotional, mental, and spiritual suffering an athlete goes through during, and after, the physical elements of the injury are treated?
Andrews: I hear words like agonizing, hopeless, despair, angry, depressed, anxious, panic, shock. When you put an athlete's career and identity on the line with a serious diagnosis and recovery period, it is profoundly emotional. Just look at the video of Oklahoma’s Ryan Broyles on the sidelines after he learned he had torn his ACL. He was upset then and he still has a lot to work through with his upcoming surgery and rehab.
Q: On your website, you state that you help athletes remove blocks that inhibit peak performance and unleash their natural power. Does every athlete possess the raw materials to bounce back mentally after an injury or do some consciously choose to give up?
Andrews: I believe that there is a wide spectrum here. Some athletes are blessed with a very resilient spirit. They bounce back with little or no help on the psychological aspects of recovery. Others find it very difficult to overcome the stress and upset they face when injured. I think those that give up have not had the opportunity to address the mental and emotional impact of their injury. They have been cleared to play physically but still suffer from fears and anxieties that they can’t overcome. Most don’t have the tools to get back mentally so in frustration or hopelessness they quit. For many, this can lead to other problems down the road.
Q: Tell me about how unresolved issues from injuries and the fear of re-injury can hinder an athlete’s progress, even if they’ve been cleared to play again?
Andrews: The more upsetting and significant the injury, the more powerful the imprint in the brain. When an athlete attempts to come back, the mind will do everything in its power to protect them from re-injury. They might favor an injured knee or change release points and arm slots on a certain pitch. Mentally, they are hesitant, and play with lower levels of confidence. For some this sets them up for re-injury or suffering a different injury. I see many athletes who have experienced a whole string of injuries. They are overwhelmed with the emotional and mental burden they carry. It is like a computer that has too many programs running. Their mind runs slow and sometimes crashes.
Q: What is the most rewarding part of what you do for athletes?
Andrews: Being able to watch them compete at extremely high levels again. To be able to watch them laugh, celebrate, enjoy the game, and play with passion again is exhilarating. An injured athlete can learn so much about themselves in the process of recovery. When they return to play, they are not the same athlete they were before they were injured. When they work through the mental aspects of recovery, they return to play wiser, more mature, and resilient.
Q: Give one example of how you coached an athlete from despair and hopelessness to a strong mental state of inner victory.
Andrews: I worked with a football player who had twenty-four D-1 scholarships offered to him. In the summer before his senior year, he injured his knee. This injury ended his career. He was depressed and filled with anxiety. He had no direction in his life. After we worked through the mental and emotional blocks related to his injury, and his abrupt disconnect from his sport, his spark for life reignited. He went back to college and began pursuing a degree that would enable him to help young people. He loved life again and could accept that his career as a football player was over. He found another sport to channel his passion and competitive fire into. The light in his eyes returned and he was at peace.
About Robert Andrews
: Robert is the Founder & Director of The Institute of Sports Psychology
in Houston, Texas. He is the sports psychology consultant for the USA men’s gymnastics team, coaches, and staff. He works with Olympic, professional, college, and high school athletes and coaches. His areas of specialization are helping athletes overcome mental blocks associated with sports-related injuries and helping athletes and coaches achieve peak levels in performance. Robert can be reached at (713) 522-2200 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle Hill is the Strong Copy Quarterback at Winning Proof. She helps current and retired pro athletes increase their success score by writing website content and other marketing material.