Mind And Body (III) – Imagination And Self Talk For Sports Injury Rehabilitation

In the past article in this series, Mind and Body (II) – Mental Goals for Sports Injury Rehabilitation, we looked at goal-setting. Goal-setting is the crucial first step and is the psychological foundation for faster injury recovery.

Psychological Factors For Sports Injury Rehabilitation

In this part, we will look at two other supporting psychological factors – Mental Imagery and Positive Self-Talk. We will cover these two factors along with concrete take-away suggestions and examples that a recovering athlete can use.

Mental Imagery

Mental imagery is the process of using the imagination to rehearse, imagine or replay situations in the “theatre of the mind”. Sometimes also known as mental rehearsal, it helps athletes anticipate and deal with the challenges of rehabilitation and to enhance the healing process.

Sports Injury Rehabilitation

Studies found that athletes that “tried to see or feel their body heal” or “imagine themselves fully recovered and performing their sports again” recovered faster than if they don’t excessively replay their injury.

Levleva and Orlick (1993) suggested this summary of imagery application during rehabilitation to improve the rehabilitation process:

  1. Visualizing the healing taking place to the injured area internally.
  2. Visualizing effectively moving through specific motions and situationsthat put the most demand on the injured area.
  3. Re-experiencing or imagining individual skills required for best performance – to stay sharp mentally.
  4. Calling up the feelings that characterize best performances.
  5. Visualizing returning to competition and performing at one’s best.
  6. Engaging in imagery that involves feeling positive, enthusiastic, and confident about returning to training and competition.

Positive Self-Talk

It is not uncommon to find many athletes having a tendency to dwell on negative or irrational thoughts and beliefs about themselves, their injury, or their return to performance. Performance in sports afterall in part lies in the confidence that the athletes have in themselves. Positive self-talk is the process by which the athlete’s negative thoughts are redirected into positive, task oriented thoughts and affirmations that can help provide direction and motivation to the rehabilitation process.

Researchers Ievleva & Orlick (1991, 1993) provides us with some examples of positive self-talk statements from the fast healing group:

  • I can do anything.
  • How can I make the most out of what I can do now.
  • I can beat this thing.
  • Telling myself “I can do it” and beat the odds and recover sooner than normal.
  • Because I want to go spring skiing, I will be totally healed by then.
  • I have to work to get my leg as strong as the other one.
  • It’s feeling pretty good.
  • It’s getting better all the time.

In contrast, the slow-healing group will likely to say the following to themselves:

  • It’s probably going to take forever to get better.
  • I’ll never make up for the lost time.
  • Talked to myself about how frustrated I was, and that it would probably take forever to get better
  • What a stupid thing to do. – Dumb mistake. [tied with excess imagery replay of injury]
  • What a useless body.
  • It will never be as strong again.
  • Stupid fool! Stupid injury and leg.
  • I talked to myself about how frustrated I was. There is nothing good about this and there is nothing I can do about it.
  • Why me?


  1. Ievleva, L., & Orlick, T. (1991). Mental links to enhanced healing: An exploratory study. The Sport Psychologist, 5, 25 – 40.
  2. Ievleva, L., & Orlick, T. (1993). Mental paths to enhanced recovery from a sports injury. In J. Heil (Ed.), Psychology of Sport Injury (pp. 219 – 245). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers.

Adapted from a technical paper contributed by Poh Yu Khing, a sports and performance psychologist. Poh Yu Khing was formerly the Head of Sport Psychology at the Singapore Sports Council. An ex-national badminton player, he has also taken part in small endurance events such as the half-marathon and mini-triathlons. In his spare time outside of his day job, he enjoys consulting with athletes and performers as a freelance sports & performance psychologist. He was also the author of a regular “Golfing Mind” column in the local GOLF magazine.