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Expert Insight: Sports Injury Related Growth & Development

Coral-Jade Oakley is a fitness ambassador at the University of Winchester and affiliate practitioner for Consider:ED Sports; a company promoting specialist pathways for individuals and teams involved in sport. She has degrees in both Applied Sports Science and Applied Sports Psychology, with an active interest in mental health and well-being surrounding sports injuries.


Have you ever thought about how you could turn your sports injury into an opportunity for growth?


For a long time, we have been aware of the negative consequences of a sporting injury and the psychological and emotional impact this has on an individual. But, have we ever stopped to think about the positive psychological, emotional and social outcomes that may arise from an injury experience?


From as early as 1995, research and education has taught us how an injury experience can inflict grief, in a way of anger, denial and depression. Additionally, we have understood how we cope and appraise our injury experience can result in negative consequences – for example, anxiety and fear of re-injury. With this in mind, how often do we stop and think how an injury experience may be perceived in a positive light?


With research emerging in 2007 that focused on various dimensions of sports injury, including psychological factors that can influence injury outcomes, it seemed that positive outcomes of injury began to emerge. This included an individual’s readiness to return to sport and their functional performance following the injury. Although not exactly what we are looking for, this research began a stepping stone into more specific research that focused on psychological responses and long-term benefits following injury.


This emergence started with Personal Growth being acknowledged as a contributing factor in the psychological process of injury rehabilitation. Personal Growth was defined as gaining a sense of perspective, personality development and better time management; all positive benefits to be derived from injury.


Now we understand that individuals can have positive experiences and positive responses following, what is ultimately a negative experience of injury, you may be wondering what we mean by Sport Injury Related Growth.


Sport Injury Related Growth, often referred to as SIRG, suggests that numerous internal (i.e., personality, coping styles, and social support) and external factors (i.e., time, resources) enables injured athletes to positively facilitate their injury experience into an opportunity for social, physical, mental, and emotional development.


The Theory of Sport Injury Related Growth, or T-SIRG, proposes that certain resources must be accessed to increase the chance of experiencing SIRG during injury rehabilitation. For example, dispositional qualities (i.e., optimism), physical resources (i.e., rehabilitation), and social support. These accessed resources sequentially help nurture the process of SIRG and development through four processes. These four processes include positive emotions, positive re-appraisal, meta-cognition and facilitative response.


In terms of what we are trying to answer here, evidence within the T-SIRG suggests that positive emotions and positive appraisals can be derived from injury experience, resulting in growth and development. The answer – individuals can most definitely influence their rehabilitation outcomes to a positive experience and an opportunity for growth.


However, you are probably wondering how you can achieve this. How can individuals access the resources needed to influence their rehabilitation? Well, let me breakdown some examples for you:


1. An individual may seek physiotherapy and adhere to their programme -resulting in enhanced strength performance upon return to sport and increased gratification

2. An individual may seek emotional support from family members, friends and/or partners, resulting in positive emotions and assurance


However, what we want to focus on specifically is how Emotional Disclosure, a therapeutic intervention, can be used as an accessible resource to help increase opportunity for growth in those undergoing sports injury rehabilitation.


You may be wondering what Emotional Disclosure is – Emotional Disclosure is ‘the therapeutic expression of emotion’ and by this we are referring to Written Emotional Disclosure. Written Emotional Disclosure as an intervention consists of three to five days of fifteen to thirty minutes of consecutive writing. When talking about injury rehabilitation, the aim of this writing is the following:


To think about the injury experience with a particular focus on the negative emotions you may have felt (or currently feel) – preferably the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that you have not previously discussed with others.


Previously many researchers have focused their time into gaining an understanding of emotional disclosure to increase psychological benefits and positive outcomes from various stressors. More specifically, those who investigated injury rehabilitation found that individuals who experienced a sports injury were often fearful of disclosing their emotions due to adverse consequences. In contrast, investigations also highlighted those individuals who kept their emotions to themselves were likely to inhibit their own physical and psychological recovery.


This is where my research comes in – recommendations were made following this research that suggested the need for the below to be explored in more detail:

  • Explore methods in which injured athletes can safely disclose their emotions.

  • Provide an understanding as to how Emotional Disclosure can help provide an opportunity for growth and development following a sports injury.

Consequently, my research project investigates how and why individuals suffering with a sports injury experience growth and development, following an Emotional Disclosure intervention. The aim of this research was to increase the opportunity for sports injury related growth to occur, through the intervention and provide useful information and understanding surrounding emotional disclosure as an appropriate intervention for injured athletes.


When approaching this research project, we tasked ourselves with explaining and providing evidence for the following:

  • Can Emotional Disclosure, as a form of written therapy, promote Sport Injury Related Growth?

  • How can we provide a resource to educate the importance of Sport Injury Related Growth in sports environments?

  • How important is it to promote Emotional Disclosure to athletes suffering with a sports injury?

In short, this research project analysed the effectiveness of an Emotional Disclosure intervention with injured athletes and studied whether they experienced any growth and development as a result of this intervention. For reference – The measure used for Sport Injury Related Growth within this research was the Stress Related Growth Questionnaire, a reliable and valid measure of growth in injured athletes.


The numerical results showed that individuals who took part in the Emotional Disclosure intervention had an increased Stress Related Growth score from pre- to post-intervention compared to those who didn’t take part in the intervention. Although this proves the intervention is effective in increasing growth and development, the most interesting results to draw from this research comes from the interviews conducted.


The interviews provided 3 themes that were broken down into 2 categories:

  • Category 1: Immediate Growth (this reflected participants growth experiences immediately after the intervention)

  • Category 2: Reflective Growth (this reflected participants experiences at a two-week follow-up after the intervention)

Category 1 included positive emotions and positive re-appraisal. Immediately after the intervention, participants reported experiencing positive affective states – for example, honesty and optimism.


Examples from participants:

“Writing felt real and honest. It felt more real once I wrote it down and I felt I could be more honest with what I was feeling. If I didn’t feel like going out because of my injury, the intervention made me feel like I could just be honest and say that.”

“Writing was like a lightbulb moment. I became hopeful that I would return the same player that I left and that gave me more motivation during my rehabilitation.”


Positive re-appraisal was also identified as a core concept that leads to Sports Injury Related Growth. This referred to the participants’ knowledge of, and control over their thoughts. Rather than participants allowing negative thoughts to occupy them, they were able to immediately reflect on what they were feeling and why they felt this way (self-awareness). Additionally, participants were able to rationalise and accept their injury and logically justify their behaviour during their recovery.


Examples from participants:

“I am now more open and aware of what I am feeling. Since I wrote I can understand that I was angry, I was upset. But now I know where to go from here.”

“I wrote about how bad my injury was. It made me realise how bad it was. If I went back to playing, I knew I could make it worse. Maybe I was in denial of how bad it was before.”


In terms of reflective growth, category 2 included facilitative responses upon return to sport. At the point of follow-up participants had returned to rehabilitation or training. The interviews found that positive emotions and positive re-appraisals were reflected positively upon return to the sporting environment. This included opportunities that were more readily available to participants while they were injured (i.e., academic study) and access to their social support network. For example, participants were able to focus their time on other commitments.


Examples from participants:

“Instead of wallowing, I was able to dedicate more time to do my PHD work.”

“I couldn’t walk. I was lonely and bored. So I was able to make an effort to get out and do stuff I wasn’t normally able to do.”

“I’m more sociable. I got all my emotions out and now I don’t have to worry about feeling uncomfortable around others.”


Participants were able to reflect on their injury experience throughout the intervention and begin to invest focus into strengthening qualities that they can use to improve their injury experience, and in turn experience growth.


Overall, the research conducted provides a significant contribution to what we already know surrounding growth and development following an injury. But ultimately, the aim of this research was to not only highlight the importance of Written Emotional Disclosure as an external resource to promote growth but provide a useful resource to sport environments of the importance of promoting growth within injured athletes.


You can find more blogs by Coral-Jade relating to her experiences working within the fitness industry, her research projects, and other interesting industry topic areas at her website here.


If you’d like to share your research with the Brace Community, contact conor@bracesocial.com.


Going through injury recovery or know someone who is? The free Brace app can be downloaded from our home page to help take control of the recovery journey in a positive and connected way!

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