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Expert Insight: Coping with Injury - Challenge or Threat?

Updated: Jun 14

With Scott Gunning

Scott Gunning is a Trainee Sport and Exercise Psychologist, registered with the British Psychological Society, and the founder of Gunning Mental Performance.

Coping With Sports Injuries

Scott works with a range of athletes and teams to provide psychological support in areas including pre-competition nerves, maintaining motivation, building confidence, and getting back to sport following injury.

Additionally, Scott works as a visiting lecturer at the University of Winchester, teaching a Sport Psychology Module. Outside of this, Scott competes as a 200m and 400m sprinter, winning several county and regional medals to date, as well as competing regularly in national level competitions.

Sports Injury - Motivation For Injured Athletes

Sport is full of potentially stressful situations or events, including injury. Regardless of the standard that you compete at, sustaining an injury is frustrating and can lead to several days, months or even years away from competing in the sport you love. As a result, injured athletes often experience a decrease in well-being and motivation and increase in negative emotions (Evans et al., 2008). However, some athletes report individual and athletic growth as a result of injury (Hammer, Podlog and Gledhill, 2021), through what is known as Sports-Injury Related Growth (see our previous blog post on Sports Injury Related Growth).

Whether an injury has a positive or negative impact on our performance can be determined by whether we view or appraise the situation as a challenge or a threat to our wellbeing.

A threat appraisal views a situation as a threat to one’s wellbeing and will result in increased feelings of stress and anxiety. Meanwhile a challenge appraisal views the situation as a challenge to improve and develop as an individual or athlete and leads to decreased feelings of stress and anxiety (Jones et al., 2009; Uphill et al., 2019). Whether we view an injury as a threat, or a challenge can be determined by three factors Self-Confidence, Feelings of Control, and Goals set.

Coping with Injury -  Challenge Appraisal
Coping with Injury -  Threat Appraisal

Adopting a challenge appraisal to an injury has a number of positive benefits including:

· Increasing motivation,

· reducing negative thoughts regarding the injury,

· improving decision making during the rehab period,

· decreasing stress and anxiety,

· improving physiological functioning.

As a result, creating a challenge appraisal of an injury can be hugely beneficial to the recovery process (Jones et al., 2009; Uphill et al., 2019).

Coping With Injury

There are many different techniques that could be used to help generate the optimal conditions needed to create a challenge view of an injury, and support athletes in coping with injury. This blog looks at 3 in particular that you can complete to help aid the injury recovery process, Control Mapping, Goal Setting, and Strengths Auditing. The rest of this blog focusses on providing an overview of these techniques as well as providing resources to allow you utilise these techniques in your own time.

1. Control Mapping.

When we get injured, we often feel like we have a complete lack of control over the situation. This then leads to increased feelings of stress that can be detrimental to the injury recovery process. Control Mapping is a simple and straight-forward method for noting the areas that you can control or influence and those areas that you can’t control during the injury recovery process. Once you’ve made it clear to yourself what you can control it is easier to set goals related to these areas and you can avoid thinking about areas that you can’t control.

How to do it.

Take a piece of paper and divide it into 3 sections. Label these sections Can Control, Can Influence and Can’t Control. Taking your current injury situation identify areas that can be included in each of these different sections.


Can Control.

Include everything that you can have control over during the injury recovery process.

- How many hours of rehab I do each day.

- Where I do my rehab (at home, at the training group etc…).

- Whether I keep a record of my injury rehab process.

- How much I learn about the injury

- My attitude towards the injury

Can Influence (Own Behaviour or Others Behaviour).

Include everything here that you can influence through your own behaviour or through the behaviours of others.

- Time taken to get back to training (by keeping to training plan and by receiving treatment).

- How much support I get in the rehab process (by speaking to physiotherapist, sports psychologists etc... about the rehab process).

- Whether the injury comes back later (by complete the correct rehab exercises to strengthen the weakened area).

Can’t Control

Include everything here that you can’t control during the injury recovery process.

- Severity of the injury

- Team selection whilst you are out injured.

Once you have identified the areas that you can control and influence it is easier to focus your attention on these factors and set goals that are under your control (Perry, 2020).

2. Goal Setting

One of the most popular techniques used by athletes during the injury process; goal setting involves the process of creating specific targets to be achieved within a specific timeframe. Three different types of goals exist:

- Outcome goals: These goals are focused on out-performing others and compares your own performance to the performance of others. These goals are harder to control due to the lack of influence you have on the overall outcome and the performance of others. As a result, these are more likely to lead to a threat appraisal of a situation.

- Process Goals: These goals are focused on the execution of skills or certain behaviours that are beneficial to the injury rehab process. They are focused on your own progression and development through a period of injury and are more likely to lead to a challenge appraisal.

- Performance Goals: These goals are focused on the improvement of personal performance, such as achieving a personal best. Comparisons are made between your own performances over time rather than with your competitors’ performances. These goals are more likely to result in a challenge appraisal of a situation.

Adopting both Process and Performance goals are hugely beneficial during the injury recovery phase as they allow you to focus on your own rehab process rather than on the progress that others around you may be making. Making a list of the process and performance goals that you want to achieve during the injury rehab journey will allow you to maintain your motivation during the time as well as helping you view the injury period as a challenge rather than a threat.


Process Goals:

· My goal is to complete 5 rehab exercises each day.

· My goal is to be able to lift heavy weights by the end of the month.

· My goal is to be back running in the next 2 weeks.

· My goal is to focus on improving my technique.

Performance Goals:

· My goal is to run for 5 minutes more this week than I achieved last week.

· My goal is to lift 10kg heavier than I did last week.

3. Strengths Audit:

The final technique that can be used to aid injury recovery and create a challenge appraisal is completing a strengths audit. Understanding the strengths that you have as an athlete will help to increase feelings of self-confidence when injured and cope with the challenging situation (Perry, 2020). It can also help you to overcome the unhelpful thought patterns that cause you to focus on the negatives whilst injured rather than the positives.

How to do it.

Make a list of as many different strengths as possible for each of the following elements.

· Fitness

· Competition

· Training

· Skills

· Strategy or Tactics

· Mindset

· Support Systems

Consider the strengths that you have in training, competition and during the injury recovery process. Once you have completed your own strengths audit, ask teammates, coaches, and members of your support system to review your strengths and identify other areas that they believe you excel in.

Once complete, keep lists of your strengths in key areas (e.g. in your kit bag, on your bedroom wall, on your phone). Whenever you are feeling low in confidence about your ability to cope with the injury, review these strengths to remind yourself of the areas that you excel in.


To summarise, whilst sustaining an injury is without a doubt a challenging situation, we can either view it as a threat to be avoided, or a challenge to grow and develop. By adopting a challenge appraisal of the situation, it can help to increase positive emotions, improve motivation, and decrease stress and anxiety related to injury.

Adopting a challenge appraisal of an injury is determined by our levels of self-confidence, perceived control over the situation and the types of goals we set. Engaging in the techniques of Control Mapping, Goal Setting, and Strengths Auditing can help to provide the resources that we need to cope with the injury situation and aid the recovery process.

If you'd like to learn more about Scott and the fantastic services offered by Gunning Mental Performance, you can find out more here.

Click here if you'd like more great recovery advice from our series Injury Recovery Advice: 5 Top Tips from Athletes in the Process.

Download the free Brace Injury Recovery Mobile App today from our Home Page to empower your recovery journey!

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