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Stress Related Sports Injuries

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Physical factors are one the primary cause of injuries in sports and exercise for instance, a poor tackle in football, an awkward landing in gymnastics or poor warm-ups in sprinting. However, psychological researchers are continuing to show that thoughts, perceptions and aspects of personality may be linked to the incidence of injury.

Stress and athletic injury

Past research has seen the relationship between athletic injuries and psychological factors as essentially stress-related (1). In this sense, stress is predicted to produce increased state anxiety and consequently alterations in attentional focus and muscular tension. It is important to note that stress does not exist outside the individual “ not all people respond negatively to potentially stressful situations; one person may view a championship match as exciting and exhilarating while another becomes anxious and chokes. This will usually depend on the individual's personality traits (perceptual bias) and the coping response present.

The importance of coping mechanisms will be discussed further towards the end of this paper but at this point it is useful to point out that between stress and its consequences are positioned individual coping strategies. Learning to cope with stress can avoid such negative symptoms as attentional disruption and muscular tension.

In situations seen as stressful, athletes will often report attentional narrowing and excessive muscular tension, which are thought to increase the chances of sustaining an injury. Having a flexible attentional focus is an important attribute in many fast sporting activities that require both narrow (focusing on perhaps just one environmental cue) and broad focus (focusing on peripheral cues such as the positioning of other team members or opponents) at different times during play.

Stress can cause attentional narrowing which results in important peripheral cues being missed. For example, the football player that only attends to the ball may fail to withdraw from an unrealistic challenge (rather than stay on his feet) in which his opponent is obviously going to meet the ball first. This can result in a late tackle and/or injury. A significant body of past evidence also supports the notion that stress can cause increased muscular tension, which disrupts coordination and increases the risk of injury. A figure skater that becomes tense during a difficult routine might lack coordination due to muscular tension and fall, injuring an ankle.

Threatening situations:

One important model that highlighted the stress-injury relationship cited both situational factors (i.e. importance of situation) and personal characteristics (i.e. personality traits) as important determinants of outcome (2). This model cited the interaction between factors as crucial and provided an impetus for future research. An athlete who tends to view situations as threatening (high trait anxiety), who has a history of life stressors (major life-changing events and daily hassles) and has poor coping resources (lacks social support, etc.) is considered to be more likely to experience a negative stress response and consequently is more prone to athletic injury. Although the relationship between stress and injury is complex, one study that used a large sample size “ 452 athletes (3) “ showed that as predicted, athletes with more life stress, little social support and poor coping skills were associated with more days of non-participation due to athletic injury.

Personality research:

Some researchers are quick to associate personality traits with athletic injury. In general, research concerning the measurement of personality in the sport and exercise field has been controversial, plagued by inappropriate and inconsistent methodologies and grossly over-generalized application of results.

Unfortunately, many psychologists have adopted one of two bi-polar stances that either ascribes great significance to the role of personality or virtually no significance at all. Many contemporary researchers, however, are beginning to take the middle ground and suggest that the truth lies somewhere between these two polarized positions. Despite this, the research findings to date are difficult to interpret due to inconsistencies, with the relationship between personality and injury remaining unclear. It would seem unlikely that a personality profile that characterizes 'injury-prone' athletes actually exists (4), although some studies have identified patterns/trends that appear to warrant further investigation.

One recent study identified injured college gymnasts as possessing emotional instability, emotional disturbance, stress proneness and lack of self-control (5). This finding appears to support the stress-injury model previously discussed. Other research has shown a readiness to take risks (lack of caution, spirit of adventure) as characteristic of injured athletes, although this is not sufficient to establish a causal relationship between such traits and injury. The relationship between personality and injury should be viewed with caution. Some recent reviewers (6) emphasizes that personality characteristics appear to either buffer or exacerbate the stress response “ which is proposed to be the mechanism linked to injury. If personality is linked to injury (which is at present unclear) it is likely through indirect means.

Attitudes and injury:

In work with injured athletes, some sport and exercise psychologists have proposed that certain attitudes might predispose athletes to injury (7). According to this research, the attitudes that coaches often try to instill in their athletes can actually backfire with regard to injury risks. For example, the 'no pain, no gain', and 'give 110%' attitudes might unwittingly lead to athletes taking undue risks. In many sports, participants need to be assertive and play hard, but within safe limits, employing appropriate techniques and strategies. This doesn't just apply to contact sports since many other exercisers attempt to go through the pain barrier and as a result suffer overuse injuries or over-train.

A study cited by Weinberg and Gould (2005, p265) perfectly illustrates why giving 110% does not always produce the best performances. The study concerned 400m runners who were first asked to run all-out during a timed trial (giving 110% effort). A few days later the same runners were asked to complete a second run, this time at 95% of their capacity. Interestingly, runners' times were quickest in the 95% effort. The authors concluded that the result was due to increased muscular tensions in attempting to run beyond capacity, which interfered with



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