The mental and emotional side of sports injuries: An interview with Dr. Erin Shannon

In one of the chapters of my book, That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever, I look at the challenge of returning from an injury that keeps an athlete out of sports for many months. I learned that all athletes, from the pros to weekend warriors to young sports stars, face more than just physical hurdles. I reached out to Dr. Erin Shannon, doctor of clinical psychology and energy medicine practitioner in St. Louis, Missouri. Her insight on mental aspects of recovery and athletic potential were fascinating. I have shared a portion of that interview here.

Dr. David Geier:     As someone who works with athletes, I wanted to discuss ACL injuries, but I only use that injury because it’s one of the more severe injuries. It almost always needs surgery. Patients are out six months, or sometimes twelve months or more. We’ve realized, in studies over the last few years, there’s a huge challenge with fear of reinjury and confidence of returning to sports. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about it. Is that something that you commonly see? Is that something that athletes at all levels, especially pros, really struggle with?

Dr. Erin Shannon:     Yes, definitely. I think that that’s a great one to choose because it is so severe, and the recovery period is so long. We talk about the reentry point. It’s so essential that you make sure that you handle the mental aspect of the recovery, because when the athlete reenters onto the field, it’s vital that they have dealt with the mental aspects of recovery and reentry. Not only will they be reentering with the issues of the quickness of the game and all the mental aspects that they’re going to have to hurdle – that anyone will have to hurdle over that’s been away from the game for an extended period of time – but they’re also going to be dealing with the trauma of the injury.

Anybody that’s had a significant injury and then has to reenter the field of battle where they had the injury occur – for example, if you’re a football player and you got the injury on the football field and then you are thrust back into the game – you’re going to have some mild post-traumatic stress memories of the injury that are going to haunt you as you reenter the sport.

Part of what we do, as we’re in our recovery phase, not only are we working on getting back to where we need to be physically, but we’re working on where we need to be mentally by releasing the trauma in the body from the point of injury at the time of injury. When we do this psychosocial healing and this somatic dialogue energy work that I do with my players, they’re shocked to realize, “Oh my gosh. I didn’t even know all this junk was going on in my body. Where did all that emotion come from, and where did all those thoughts and memories come from? I thought I just got hit and I wasn’t even thinking about it.”

They’re shocked that they even had these minute little flashes of memory and these slowed-down thoughts about what happened at the time of the injury. Then when we go deeper and sometimes we even go into a bit of a hypnotic state, they’ll link that tiny few milliseconds of an injury to early childhood traumas that have happened or different fearful events in their life. This injury is like a bridge or a gateway to other fear-based traumatic events in their life. It will allow us to walk over that bridge and release other very deep traumas from early in their life.

These injuries that have occurred on the playing field sometimes give us access to these very deep, earlier traumas. Sometimes there will be a great number of these traumas, maybe five, ten, maybe even more, traumas. If we are in a really good, safe, relationship in the treatment room, we’re able to access all of these traumas and free up an incredible amount of energy and emotional space. That athlete can walk back onto that playing field a whole new man and a very powerful, dangerous athlete because he’s got new energy freed up that he might not have had access to. All of the sudden, he’s saying, “Holy moley, I am a whole new guy because I didn’t even know all this junk was stored inside of me. I feel amazing. I didn’t even know I was holding onto all that anger, that rage, that fear. Now, there’s no stopping me.” Not only do they go back on the field fully healed, but they go back on the field bulletproof.

Concussed football player on the bench

Dr. David Geier:     That makes a lot of sense. I think where I thought maybe there could be issues, it seems like I read an article, maybe a year ago, about how the Seattle Seahawks have embraced working with a sports psychologist. They interviewed players in the article who came from other teams who said, “This is night and day different than my old team where they really discouraged a lot of this.” They loved going to the Seahawks. I wondered if you had heard some of those same types of things.

Dr. Erin Shannon:     I think that is 100% the vibe that you’re going to get from the top down. Pete Carroll is the kind of guy that is embracing of this type of mental performance, and he understands that this is the future of where the game is going to go. He’s a very forward-thinking coach, and there are several guys like him.

Whether you like it or not, this is the way the game is going to go. We have maximized the performance and the output of every other aspect of human performance and potential. What we have not tapped into, in an optimum way, is the training above the neck, the above the neck potential of our athletes. We have not even scratched the surface.

The greatest athletes understand that there is a maximum amount of talent in every level. When you get to the most elite level, all these elite athletes – whether it’s the NBA, the NFL, the NHL, Major League Baseball, it doesn’t matter what sport you’re in, all of them – are a sliver away from each other. They are all the greatest in the world at what they do. What makes the difference? There’s a bit of luck. There’s a bit of timing. There’s a bit of training. There’s a bit of nutrition. There’s a bit of genetics. All of that’s in the pot, but the availability and the longevity of what makes the good versus the great is what people do above the neck.

What’s the difference between instinct and intuition and intelligence? What’s the difference between guessing and knowing? What are those tiny slivers and differences in variables? Those things can mean the difference between a flash in the pan and a Hall of Famer. They can mean the difference between a two-year career and a twelve-year career.

All those things are the things that I specialize in and the few others of us that are quietly floating around the league and why we are quietly here. Everybody’s keeping us a secret. Why are they keeping us a secret? There’s a reason why they’re keeping us a secret, and pretty soon it won’t be a secret anymore because everybody’s going to have one or two or ten of us.

There’s going to be neurofeedback. There’s going to be virtual reality training. When we look back in 20 years, we’re going to laugh and say, “Can you imagine that we didn’t have all of this neurocognitive training? Those were the dark ages. Those were the leather helmet days. Good lord.” This is the beginning of it, and guys like Pete Carroll have that top-down attitude where the culture accepts it. In other places, they can laugh and scoff and say, “What? You’re going to the shrink, you crazy?” But in Seattle, they didn’t have that, and what happened?

Dr. David Geier:     This is fascinating, I want to follow up on that. What does the future look like? Do you expect that most franchises in all the major sports will consult with sports psychologists? Is this is going to become the norm at the professional level?

Dr. Erin Shannon:     No, I don’t think that they’ll consult with them. I think they’ll be embedded in the teams. I think that that’s the only way that it will be successful and optimized because athletes have to be comfortable with you. They have to get to know you, and it has to be that tribe-like atmosphere. Anybody who has worked with a team will understand that, especially for something that taps into the mental side of the game. The sports psychologist will need to be embedded in the team and be with the team and be part of the roster and travel with the team just like the team physicians and the coaches and anyone else.

I believe that in ten years, that’s what you’re going to see. You’re going to see at least one or two, depending on what their specialty. You might have more of a neurocognitive person that will be more on the neurological side and more of a psychological operations person for the mental side of the game. Those two people will be embedded with the team. One will be more on the coaching side, and one will be more on the medical side. I think that in 20 years, we’ll look back, and literally we’ll be amazed to even imagine the game prior to that because we will have optimized and refined the mental side of it so much that it will be almost digitized.

Learn more about the Dr. Shannon on her website. Get more terrific information from her and other experts about injuries and the progress we have made at getting all athletes back in the game quicker and safer than ever in That’s Gotta Hurt: The Injuries That Changed Sports Forever. Get your copy, and let me know what you think!