What is the Affective Cycle of Injury?

I can still remember almost every detail of the night I tore my ACL. 

It was one of the last games of my senior season. Fifteen minutes into the game, I turned to defend a ball and stepped awkwardly, colliding with another player as I fell. I heard four deafening cracks and knew it was torn. 

That injury ended my soccer career and an important chapter of my life. Healing was a long and difficult process. In addition to surgery and physical therapy, I had to recover mentally and emotionally.

In psychology, there’s a concept known as the “Affective Cycle of Injury” which categorizes an individual’s three main responses to my career-ending injury: denial, distress and determined to cope. Throughout my recovery process, I experienced all three.

When I tore my ACL playing soccer, recovery wasn't easy and I experienced the Affective Cycle of Injury. Here's how I coped with my career-ending injury.

How I Coped with My Career-Ending Injury

Phase One: Denial

In the denial phase, athletes have not yet come to terms with the reality of their injuries. Although many people consider this to be unhealthy, denial is a necessary coping mechanism for athletes when losing their sport would be unbearable.

For several months after my career-ending injury, I knew that my soccer career was over but I was unable to cope with that fact. My denial allowed me to accept my injury at my own pace.

Rather than being initially overwhelmed with emotion, I was able to spend time reflecting and coming to terms with my new reality.

Phase Two: Distress

During distress, athletes are preoccupied with their injury and experience intense sadness. Although it is painful, distress helps athletes process their situations and deal with their negative emotions so that they can eventually move on.

Athletes who highly associate their identity with their sport are the most susceptible to issues with emotional health. Soccer was an integral part of my identity, which helps explain why my distress and grief after my career-ending injury were so intense. 

I’d always been the “soccer girl”. Growing up, my time was spent at practices and away for tournament games. Soccer was my favorite activity and my outlet for stress and negative emotions. I felt even more connected to my sport in college, where I became part of a community of other “soccer girls”. 

After I tore my ACL, my identity and outlet for coping were suddenly gone. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye to soccer on my own terms, which caused me to believe I would never get closure or move on.

I struggled to find who I was outside of soccer. Without it, I didn’t know how to spend my free time, what else I enjoyed, or how to describe myself.

Phase Three: Determined Coping

The last phase of the Affective Cycle of Injury is determined to cope. In this phase, athletes redirect their time and energy to other passions or outlets. Finding a new sense of purpose can make the loss of a sport more manageable.

After I lost my identity as a “soccer girl”, I felt isolated and purposeless. However, after a grieving period, I became tired of sitting around doing nothing. I decided to advocate for mental health awareness on campus.

I spent months planning and organizing events and fundraisers as well as set up an internship with my local National Alliance on Mental Illness chapter. I found that this was something I was incredibly passionate about and wanted to pursue it further.

After discovering my passion for mental health, I plan to become a sport psychologist. Even though my soccer career is over, this will allow me to stay connected to the world of competitive sports.

Through sports psychology, I hope to blend my passions and personal experiences. Saying goodbye to soccer was not easy for me. However, it taught me resilience, perseverance, and gave me a new purpose.

Rachel Shinnick

Written By: Rachel Shinnick

Rachel graduated from Wofford College with a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology.

Rachel played Division One soccer at Wofford for four years and enjoys games and activities that are meant to challenge you, such as Escape Rooms and Red Herrings.


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