The Psychology of “Rebounding”: How to Come Back Mentally and Physically Stronger From Any Setback

In every challenging set of circumstances, there are ways—even small ones—to regain control and take action.

The degree to which an athlete recovers from injury varies, as does the ease with which they do so. Some of the differences have to do with factors like the severity of the setback. However, even athletes whose lives are irrevocably altered by injury often make what sports psychology experts call a “remarkable recovery”—coming back mentally and physically stronger, whether they are able to return to their sport in the exact same way or not.

In our book Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger From Sports Injuries, we look at exactly how these athletes are able to rise again after injuries that might cause others to crumble. The key is what happens when athletes reach critical, difficult moments in their injury process; for some, each one of those moments becomes an opportunity to rebound.

In physics, a “rebound” occurs after a collision. Say you drop a red bouncy ball from the top of a gym riser. First, the ball speeds toward the floor; at the moment of impact, all its energy is still moving downward. Then, after the ball hits the ground, there is a transfer of that energy—a momentum shift. The ball changes direction and accelerates back upward.

In every challenging set of circumstances, there are ways—even small ones—to regain control and take action. You might test out a positive mantra, reframe a goal, ask specifically for the type of support you need, or even just pause for a moment before reacting to a piece of bad news. In that moment, you begin to transfer energy from the fall to the bounce—increasing your odds of rising again, and this time even higher.

These responses seem to come naturally to certain athletes. For instance, athletes who score high on a trait called hardiness—a personality type characterized by resilience under stress—appear more likely to experience personal growth after getting hurt. But if mindset were predetermined by genetics or even by how your parents raised you, Carrie and other mental training coaches and sport psychology pros wouldn’t have much of a career.

Fortunately, that’s not the case, and research has begun to bear out what clinicians like her have long known to be true: You can work on your mental skills to improve your injury experience. A review of the literature by Australian scientists, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that athletes with positive psychological responses to their injury were more likely to return to their sport. Other research has shown that deliberate focus on common psychology practices like goal-setting, imagery, and positive self-talk can affect how well, and how swiftly, athletes recover.

In one recent study of a diverse group of athletes from the United States, United Kingdom, and Finland, almost three-fourths of those who reported using mental skills after their injury said that doing so helped them recover more quickly. But not everyone knows about these skills—in that same study, of more than 1,200 athletes surveyed, only one-fourth had experience applying these psychological techniques.

This doesn’t just apply to physical injuries. There are plenty of moments in life—getting passed up for a promotion, going through a breakup, dealing with stressful family dynamics—that can set us back in a big way. Implementing the right psychology tools and mental skills in those moments can empower you to shift your momentum from the downward impact of any disappointment to the upward trajectory of a major comeback.

Practice using these four skills and watch yourself bounce back higher from literally anything.

Mindset to Master #1: Labeling Your Emotions

Mindset to Master #2: Going FAR

Mindset to Master #3: Practicing Bad News/Good News

Mindset to Master #4: Seeing Through the “Funhouse Mirror”

Get all 15 of the essential mental skills for injury recovery—plus hundreds of stories and interviews with athletes who have been there—in the book Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger From Sports Injuries.