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  • Writer's pictureAthina Papailiou

Adversarial growth following a CrossFit injury: A guide for CrossFit athletes

Updated: Feb 4, 2020

CrossFit was introduced in the fitness industry as a strength and conditioning program which is used to improve "fitness" as a whole by optimizing the 10 general physical skills (i.e. cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy) and has received great attention ever since.

Around 2007, though, since the CrossFit Games have started, CrossFit has become something more than just a training system and it can almost be considered a sport. In order to become the "Fittest on Earth" it is not enough to be in a good shape and have good technique, but you also need to show great commitment, determination, courage, motivation and respect to other people involved [1].

Because of the high intensity WODs, the rapid repetitive movements and high loads of weight, CrossFit has received a bad reputation regarding the potential injuries, especially in the shoulder, knees and lower back areas [17]. Others argue that CrossFit has lower injury risks than other sports, as the movements are more controlled compared to basketball, football or tennis, for example. However, epidemiological studies have shown that actually the injury rates of CrossFit athletes are very similar to related sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting and gymnastics [9], with the competitive athletes having a higher injury incidence, probably due to the higher exposure to training.

Injuries in competitive sports, can hugely affect an athlete not only physically, but also psychologically, and whether we consider CrossFit a sport or not, we cannot question the impact that an injury has on a CrossFit competitor. Following a serious injury, athletes may need to rest and stop practicing for a while or keep practicing but at a lower intensity, have a surgery, or even retire. How can this affect them?

"I am mad, I am sad, I am disappointed... however this too shall pass"

-Carleen Mathews after withdrawing from the CrossFit Games in 2017 due to an injury in her left arm [8]

"This is a tough decision and a tough post to make. The competitor in me can't help but to feel like a quitter, although I know it is the furthest thing from it."

-Kristin Reffett after retiring from competitive CrossFit due to some health issues [11]

My self-esteem crashed a little bit after having to withdraw from the Games cause of my rib”

-Sara Sigmunsdottir after withdrawing from the CrossFit Games in 2018 because of a broken rib (Morning Chalk Up interview, 2019)

Numerous studies suggest that a physical injury can result in negative changes in the athletes’ mood, lower self-esteem, intrusive thoughts and confusion about their (athletic) identity among others [3], [5], [6].

How can injuries affect athletes initially?

As mentioned above, injuries can have various consequences that can be divided into cognitive (thoughts), emotional and physical.

When an athlete gets injured, they tend to think about and thoroughly process the event of the injury in terms of what happened, why it happened, the impact it had on themselves and their identity, and the possible future scenarios (e.g. Am I going to train/compete again? Am I going to perform as well as before? etc) [7], [16]. Looking back at this stressful experience can easily lead athletes to intrusive thoughts, ruminations and catastrophising [18]. Others might also respond with denial, which can be used as a cognitive strategy to cope with the distress and negative feelings caused by the injury. Usually linked with avoidance of feeling bad, denial is a form of “self-deception” and it can help the athlete to adaptively cope with a stressful situation and to protect their self-esteem. In other words, the athlete avoids people, places and events that remind them of the injury, suppresses the negative emotional consequences of the injury and tries to console themselves by focusing on the perceived positive outcomes [6], [13]. That is why it is very common for athletes to keep a distance from people close to them (especially from people related to their sport) and to avoid talking about the injury and their emotions about it [5], [7], [13]. A very important issue that most athletes face after an injury is a feeling of confusion about their (athletic) identity, as the new situation does not fit with their identity prior to the injury (e.g. their capabilities might not be the same as before, their goals for the following months/season/year might need to change as they might be unable to compete or prepare for a competition, they might need to retire and stop competing etc). Especially for athletes who are forced to retire due to an injury, the confusion is more significant as their retirement was not expected or planned. In response to that athletes might either try to find ways to maintain and protect their identity (i.e. assimilation process) or form a new identity including a new role and goals (i.e accommodation process) [2], [10].

The above thoughts affect the athletes’ emotions. It is quite common for them to experience depression, anxiety (i.e. fear about the unknown) and negative emotions, such as rage, fury, shock, frustration, regret and self-pity, as well as loss of confidence [7], [12]. It has been shown that athletes feel that the injury increases the stressors and demands, and that it has an impact not only on their athletic career and/or performance but also on their everyday functioning and on others’ lives (e.g. coach, teammates, family etc). Of course, the intensity of their emotional responses varies according to the injury’s severity [12].

Finally, athletes face physical difficulties after an injury, as in most cases they perceive that they are not at the same fitness level as before the injury or they feel that they are unable or struggle to complete tasks that they used to complete [7].

It is obvious that the first reactions to sports injuries are not usually positive and it is highly understandable. Is it possible, though, that a CrossFit athlete who puts so much effort in their conditioning and trainings, nutrition, sleep and mindset can mentally and psychologically recover from such a setback in their career and/or performance? The answer is yes. It has been shown that an obstacle or a difficulty during an athlete's career might in fact be beneficial, as it could lead to adversarial growth and resilience.

What is adversarial growth?

Adversarial growth can be described as positive changes that benefit an individual's level of functioning through the process of struggling with a traumatic, stressful and/or demanding event [6], [12]. According to a growing amount of research, "people can grow following adversity to the extent that they report development beyond their pretrauma functioning" [6].

Specifically, most of the world's best athletes experience a (sport or non-sport) adversity (e.g. an injury, a serious illness, mental health issues, bullying, bereavement, financial issues etc), which can work as a "developmental catalyst" in the athlete's career and optimal performance. Athletes who have endured a serious difficulty during their sports career, have reported various beneficial changes in their attitudes, relationships and performance, such as a development of a greater appreciation of life, improved personal strength, enhanced relationships, but also improved performance and better engagement in their sport [6], [14].

Is growth always constructive?

Although growth is possible, it is not an easy and quick process, and sometimes qualitative studies has proven that it might be “illusory” and not “constructive” [5], [6], [7]. An athlete’s growth is illusory when the perceived positive changes are not reflecting true changes from within the athlete but are based on self-deception and denial. Illusory growth is usually associated with avoidance, denial and self-deception, and can be indicated by one or more of the following:

1. Seeking meaning: as mentioned above, an athlete might experience intrusive thoughts and rumination that cause distress. In order to resolve this distress, they might try to understand and make sense of their experience by looking back at the onset of the injury. Through illusory growth the athlete just comprehends their experience, which is not enough to reach constructive growth. The athlete just focuses on why the injury happened (e.g. “I did not focus on my technique”), and does not seek to understand and reflect on all the factors that impacted them (e.g. possible overtraining or other stressors that might affect concentration), their thoughts (e.g. "I am useless") and emotions (e.g. "I feel depressed") [6], [7].

2. Cognitive manipulation and denial: an athlete might use cognitive techniques in order to reduce and avoid negative feelings, such as disappointment and distress and to protect some parts of their identity. These techniques are also called “self-enhancement cognitions” and include (unrealistically) optimistic language and downwards social comparison [6].

Another example of avoidance of the negative emotions resulting from an injury is not disclosing information about their experience [12].

“Also, having everyone ask me how I was feeling was tough, because I really didn’t want to tell them that I feel like shit.”

-Annie Thorisdottir talking about her recovery period after a herniated-disk during an interview with BoxLife magazine.

3. Derogation of the injury experience: commonly, athletes will try to lower the significance of their experience in order to reduce negative feelings. For instance, they might compare themselves with other athletes who are in worse situations to feel better [2], or compare their current situation with a worse one they have experienced before.

4. Assimilation: as aforementioned, when an athlete experiences a traumatic experience, such as a serious injury, their identity is shattered. In order to maintain and protect their identity, some athletes tend to use distorted positive perceptions that fit their already formed identity prior to the injury (e.g. I am the same athlete as before, I have the same goals and aspirations, I am as capable as before etc), rather than form a new identity using the new information after the injury [5], [6]. A common example is when during the rehabilitation period, athletes might not be ready to go back to training, but instead they keep training or even compete in order to protect their (preinjury) identity and avoid negative emotions.

Although illusory growth can seem quite negative, some aspects can be considered as beneficial at the beginning of the process of growth. Specifically, denial can be used as a “short-term palliative coping strategy” when the athlete is unable to cope with the amount of shock and distress caused after the injury. When denial is also accompanied by an effort to cope with the traumatic injury, it can work as a function to support them psychologically and to help them develop their performance later [5].

How can you constructively grow and develop following an injury?

Research has shown that there are personal and external factors that can facilitate constructive growth.

What you can do:

1. Reflection: making sense of and reflecting on your experience, your thoughts and feelings after the injury, and understanding what and why you are thinking and feeling the way you are. This way, you can find any maladaptive thoughts that affect your emotions and keep you from growing and start focusing on your sporting goals and aspirations. In turn, this will help you rationalize your thoughts and finally regulate your negative emotions [7], [16].

2. Injury=challenge: seeing your injury as a challenge and not as a threat. It is your opportunity to take control, develop and become better based on what went wrong [12].

"It's crazy how our biggest challenges can become our greatest gifts"

-Julie Foucher referring to her retirement and injury [4]

3. Acceptance: accepting your injury, what has happened and all its consequences, as well as the challenge to develop [7].

4. Perceived social support: having and/or creating a safe and reliant social network. Apart from the actual social support, the perception of having social support is very important as it provides you with reassurance and a sense of security that if you need support, you will have it [12].

5. Accommodation: a reformation of your identity, your role, your priorities and goals based on the new situation (very important in athletes forced to retire) [2], [5], [7]. For example, an injured athlete who retires from competitive CrossFit might become a coach (new role) and set "supporting and training other athletes" as their new goal.

6. Other internal factors

i. Personality: Mental toughness/resilience, confidence, creativity, openness to experience, optimism, emotional intelligence, are some of the personality traits that are found to facilitate the process of growth [7], [12].

ii. Prior experience: of course having experienced another more stressful adversity (e.g. other injury, bereavement, illness etc) in the past, athletes might compare them and realise that their injury is not worth the distress [5], [7].

What you can use:

1. Physical and informational resources: reading, watching and/or hearing (e.g. autobiographies, documentaries, films, sport events etc) about other people's recoveries, information on your type of injury, how you can heal, cope and recover can help and facilitate the process of growth [5], [7], [16].

2. Social support: emotional but also practical support from family, friends, coach and/or sport psychologist can be extremely helpful; you can be benefited by encouragement, talking about your emotions, and feeling that someone understands you [5], [7], [12].

3. Time: having an injury equals more free time which can be positive [12], [16]. Many injured athletes have mentioned that during their free time they were focusing on things that they did not before, such as technique:

“I worked a lot on technique. I was doing Snatches and Clean & Jerks at 30kg (60lbs) for a month and half. My technique has probably benefited a lot from that. Now that I’m able to able to add more load, my lifts feel the same or better. I also got to practice gymnastics movements that I otherwise wouldn’t have. The experience was good that way.”

-Annie Thorisdottir talking about her recovery period (interview with BoxLife magazine).

Other athletes might also focus on things irrelevant to their sport that they could not before because of lack of time. For instance, Julie Foucher who retired after rapturing her Achilles tendon, was going to focus on finishing med school.

In what ways can you grow?

When an athlete experiences constructive growth, they can develop in various ways.

Particularly, some of the perceived gains of previously injured athletes of different levels (i.e. club to national level) are the following:

Intrapersonal development

1. Emotional regulation: increased ability to understand, express and regulate one's emotions [7]

2. Increased sport confidence, motivation and focus [15], [16]

3. Improved resilience and personal strength [7], [13], [16]

4. Better coping strategies when faced with other problems [15]

5. Change in beliefs, values and attitudes [15]

6. Spiritual change [7]

7. Change of priorities and perspective: looking at the bigger picture [5], [7], [15], [16]

Interpersonal development

1. Strengthened social network and enhanced relationships [15], [16]

2. Greater appreciation of friends and family [7]

3. Better relationship with coach [15], [16]

4. Increased levels of empathy and prosocial behaviour [7], [16]

5. Improved ability to speak to others and ask for help [7], [15]

After breaking his back in 2009 while training to compete with the US Olympic lifting team, Mat Fraser was told that he would probably not be able to lift again, but a year later he started lifting again, tried a WOD and in 2016 he gained the title of the Fittest on Earth

Physical development

1. Improved physical outcomes [7]

2. Improved technique, strength, conditioning, flexibility [15], [16]

3. Lower risk of injury: there is an increased knowledge of anatomy and risk factors of injury [15], [16]

It is evident that a CrossFit competitor can grow and develop as an athlete and as a person, even after a serious injury that can affect their career. In fact, it is this adversity that gives them the opportunity to progress. However, it should not be assumed that an injury or any adversity is desired or needed for someone to develop nor that it is enough to thrive, as there are other aspects and processes that determine an athlete’s success. It is also very important to note that the psychological significance that an injury has on an athlete should not be neglected or undermined as it can be stressful, devastating and traumatising. What is suggested is that despite the negative consequences, an athlete can benefit through an injury in many ways.



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[10] Muscat, A. C. (2010). Elite athletes’ experiences of identity changes during a career-ending injury: an interpretive description. University of British Columbia.

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[14] Sarkar, M., & Fletcher, D. (2017). Adversity-related experiences are essential for Olympic success: Additional evidence and considerations. In Progress in brain research (Vol. 232, pp. 159–165). Elsevier.

[15] Wadey, R., Clark, S., Podlog, L., & McCullough, D. (2013). Coaches’ perceptions of athletes’ stress-related growth following sport injury. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14(2), 125–135.

[16] Wadey, R., Evans, L., Evans, K., & Mitchell, I. (2011). Perceived Benefits Following Sport Injury: A Qualitative Examination of their Antecedents and Underlying Mechanisms. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 23(2), 142–158.

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[18] Wiese‐Bjornstal, D. M. (2010). Psychology and socioculture affect injury risk, response, and recovery in high‐intensity athletes: a consensus statement. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20, 103–111.

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08.01.2020 г.

Very useful and well structured article that can definitely help crossfit athletes constructively grow and develop following an injury. It should not be restricted to crossfit athletes, since the content applies in athletes in general.

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