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The Role of Positive Self-Talk in Recovering from an ACL Injury

Tearing your ACL can be devastating for an athlete, and while athletes may vary in their emotional reactions following an ACL injury, the ways in which they handle the situation both right after the injury, and throughout the rehab process, can contribute to their psychological responses (Johnston & Carroll, 1998a). Sport psychology is founded on the belief that the mind and body are inherently connected, so if the mental state of an athlete during ACL rehabilitation is positive, the body may more readily respond to therapy. We know that positive self-talk leads to positive affect, and when athletes feel good, their minds are clear, and they are better able to focus on the task at hand. By implementing cognitive restructuring and honing in on positive self-talk, it is the hope that athletes will successfully achieve a maximal level of functioning both physically and mentally.

Changing How You Think (Cognitive Restructuring)

Just like positive self-talk will lead to a positive effect, negative self-talk may serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy, so it’s important to keep yourself in the right state of mind. The first key in modifying self-talk is recognizing moments during treatment where negative thoughts are pervasive and potentially debilitating to your recovery. Here are the basic steps to cognitive restructuring (it’s often helpful to do these with a Sports Psychologist or someone who specializes in the field):

  1. Awareness: Recognize your internal dialogue. Is it positive or negative?

  2. Appraisal: Assess ways of modifying your dialogue.

  3. Adoption/Substitution: Take control of your rehabilitation by adopting new thinking. Encourage permanence through repetition.

  4. Evaluation: Assess how changes in thought have affected rehabilitation outcome.

Implementing Positive Self-Talk Strategies

Positive self-talk can come in a number of forms and modifying your self-talk can lead to increased feelings of self-efficacy and confidence which can lead to improved performance! In the rehabilitation setting, improved performance might be evident in increased strength, range of motion, and flexibility. Positive changes in your thinking can be implemented using a number of styles of self-talk.

  1. Self-encouragement – I am making good progress in physical therapy.

  2. Effort control – Keep focused on the task at hand.

  3. Performance goal achievement – I finally felt my glutes activate in the way my PT has been describing.

  4. General positive self-talk – That was a great physical therapy session.

Cognitive restructuring is not a simple task; mental skills must be practiced in the same way as physical skills. Just as sports medicine specialists work to improve the physical functioning of athletes, you must also work collectively to improve the mental state of athletes through implementation of psychological skills. Using self-talk with conviction may help productively shape the treatment session.

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