Returning to Sport Post-Injury with Focus on a Key Issue

A team full of the likes of Sonny-Bill would be a pretty impressive team wouldn’t it? Close to perfect, right. (Yes, I’m an avid Roosters fan – 2013 premiers). However, not one team or one athlete are the same, training programs aren’t “one program fits all”. So why is there one generalised theory that is designed to assist players who have recovered from injury to return to sport? In the self-determination theory (SDT), it’s assumed that all athletes possess an essential tendency for self-actualisation as well as psychological well-being. Is it fair to assume the athlete will be in a strong psychological state after returning from injury? The environment also needs to nourish and support three basic psychological needs, particularly competence, autonomy and relatedness (Podlog, L., & Eklund, R. C. (2010).

SDT is a macro-theory of human motivation, emotion and personality, and is something that has not been fully developed for 40 years, following the ground breaking work by Deci and Ryan (Vansteenkiste, M., Niemiec, P. C., Soenens, B., 2010). The problem is that there is only the one main theory trying to accommodate for most athletes returning to sport post-injury. However, there are five mini-theories underneath SDT that was developed to explain abnormal data that was collected from laboratory and field research, with each theory addressing a different aspect of motivation or how the particular athlete’s personality functions (Podlog, L., & Eklund, R. C. (2007).

The five mini-theories include cognitive evaluation theory concerning intrinsic motivation, organismic integration theory which includes extrinsic motivation, causality orientations theory involving individual’s tendencies to gravitate to particular environments and how they decide to regulate their behaviour, basic needs theory which refers to their psychological health and well-being, as well as goal content theory which determines the difference and need for extrinsic and intrinsic goals that the individual should be making when considering returning to sport (Vansteenkiste, M., Niemiec, P. C., Soenens, B., 2010). But what if an athlete doesn’t “fit” these theories?

It is important for the athlete to have a support network and a healthy and positive outlook on their well-being, as the environment needs to support the fundamental aspects of the theory for it to be effective, particularly with the psychological needs that are competence, autonomy and relatedness (Podlog, L & Dionigi, R, (2010). Without this supportive environment, the individual can re-injure themselves, as it has been proposed that anxiety related to the athlete reinjuring themselves has a number of consequences (Bianco, 2001; Kvist, Ek, Sporrstedt, & Good, 2005).  Failure to return to competition, diminished post-injury performance and decrease in confidence can lead from anxiety and pressure of returning to sport from an injury (Podlog, L., & Eklund, R. C. (2010).

The problem affects athletes, coaches and parents. There was a study that looked at coaches’ roles at deciding to return athletes to training and competition, their perspective on return-to-sport transition, and their role in assisting athletes with this transition (Podlog, L. & Eklund, R, C. (2007). The coaches possessed a good understanding of the stressors of returning to sport and recognised the importance of assisting athletes with this transition.

Imagine, two athletes both recovering from an ACL reconstruction. Both athletes are successful with their rehabilitation; however one of the athletes is struggling in regards to anxiety and fear of re-injury, decreased confidence levels and as a result, has failed to return to competition. How do you use the self-determination theory for both athletes, as they have reacted differently to their return from injury? It has been highlighted through results from studies in the field and laboratory, that if an athlete’s needs and confidence, etc. has been deflated, (Podlog & Eklund, 2006, 2007) they are more likely to experience ill-being and non-optimal functioning. This theory generalises and mainly accounts for those who have the mentality and well-being to overcome injury and return to play.

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