Physical Training Jan 2007
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Psychological aspects of rehabilitation following serious athletic injuries with special reference to goal setting: A review study.

Armatas, V.1, Chondrou, E.2, Yiannakos, A.1, Galazoulas, Ch.1, Velkopoulos, C.3

1 Department of Physical Education and Sports Science
2 Pedagogic Department of Education
3 Department of Psychology

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,

Address for correspondence:
Dr. Galazoulas Christos,
Department of Physical Education and Sports Science,
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki,
Thessaloniki 540 06, Greece.
Tel. +302310 992471
 Fax: +302310 992471


Researchers have categorised the variables that are responsible for athletic injuries into physical factors and psychosocial factors. In recent years great improvement has been made in rehabilitation methods that relate to injuries obtained during physical activities. Likewise, sport psychology presents new techniques which facilitate the rehabilitation procedure and experts use an overall approach to healing both body and mind. Sport psychologists and athletic trainers have advocated various intervention programs for assisting athletes with their psychological recovery from injury. The four components common to all the approaches are education, social support, psychological skill training and goal setting. Most theories of goal setting pertain to consciously driven goals, as these goals are created and achieved by the purposeful action of individuals. Through the years several goal-setting theories have been proposed and are presented in the present review (Locke and Latham’s theory, Garland’s cognitive evaluation theory, goal orientation theory, competitive goal setting model, goal setting research in injury rehabilitation). The goal setting process seems to have a positive effect in the recovery process, in the attitude of the injured athlete, in the successful confrontation of the injury, in the recovery of confidence and in the adherence to the rehabilitation program.

Key Words: injury, rehabilitation, psychological techniques, goal setting.


Epidemiological studies in the United States indicate that each year more than 70 millions injuries occur that require medical attention or at least a day of restricted activity (Williams, 2001). Similar studies in the United Kingdom revealed that in 1994 only, there were about 24 millions sports injuries (Hemmings, & Povey, 2002). The incidence of injuries is so serious among children and young adults that injuries have replaced infectious diseases as the leading cause of death and disability (Boyce, & Sobolewski, 1989). Studies have revealed that each year nearly half of all amateur athletes suffer an injury that precludes participation (Garrick, & Requa, 1978; Hardy, & Crace, 1990).

Indeed, the level of injury risk for professional sports performers is significantly higher than for other occupational groups. To illustrate this disparity, Drawer and Fuller (2002) reported that whereas employees in the UK suffer, on average, 0.36 reportable injuries per 100.000 working hours while, professional footballers suffer an average 710 reportable injuries per 100.000 hours of training and competition. Further evidence on the prevalence of this problem springs from the fact that sports injuries comprise approximately one third of all injuries reported to medical agencies in the UK (Uitenbroek, 1996).

Although progress has been made in rehabilitation process, athletes often face serious problems at their returning in action. Rotella and Heyman (1986) reported that it is possible for athletes to show signs of: re-injury, injury in other part of the body, decreased self-confidence that leads to decreased performance temporarily or permanently and fear and anxiety of re-injury.

Researchers categorised the variables that are responsible for athletic injuries and conclude the lower factors: physical factors and psychological factors (Kerr, & Minden, 1988; Smith, Stuart, Wiese-Bjornstal, & Gunnon, 1997).

Physical Factors in Athletic Injuries

Weinberg and Gould (2003) reported as physical factors: muscle imbalances, high-speed collisions, overtraining and physical fatigue. Kirkby (1995) compiled a list of precipitating factors which included inadequate physical conditioning and warm procedures, faulty biomechanical techniques used by athletes, deficient sport equipment, poor quality protective apparel, dangerous sports surfaces and, of course, illegal and aggressive physical contact from opponents.

Research on the causes of sports injury has identified two broad classes of risk variables: extrinsic and intrinsic factors (Kujala, 2002). Among the extrinsic factors are the type of sport played (with high-risk activities like motorcycle racing standing in contrast with safer pursuits like tennis), methods of training undertaken, typical environment in which the sport is played and the nature and amount of protective equipment used. By contrast, the intrinsic include personal characteristics of the participants such as age, gender and possible abnormalities of physical maturation.

Psychosocial factors

Undoubtedly, a significant number of injury causes emanate from physical factors, as was described above, but psychological factors have also been identified to play a prominent role (Williams, 2001). Untill recent times the causes of injuries were never considered to be psychological, in the latter three decades researchers and sport psychologists have tried to define the psychological variables that affect susceptibility and tolerance in sport injuries.

Stress levels have been identified as important antecedents of athletic injuries. Research has examined the relation between life stress and injury rates (Andersen, & Williams, 1988; Andersen, & Williams, 1998). Measures of these stresses focus on major life changes (losing a loved one, moving to a different town, getting married or experiencing a change in economic status). Overall, the evidence suggests that athletes with higher levels of life stress experience more injuries than those with less stress in their lives. Research results (Smith, Smoll, & Ptacek, 1990) suggest that when an athlete possessing few coping skills and little social support experiences major life changes, he or she is at greater risk of athletic injury. Similarly, individuals who have low self-esteem, are pessimistic and low in hardiness (Ford, Eklund, & Gordon, 2000), or have higher levels of trait anxiety (Smith, Ptacek, & Patterson, 2000) experience more athletic injuries or have been shown to lose more time as a result of their injuries.

Stress is not the only psychological factor that affects sport injuries. Personality factors, coping resources and a history of stressors, also play a significant role and increase injury possibility (Andersen, & Williams, 1988). In fact, in one recent study, up to 18% of time loss due to injury was explained by psycholosocial factors (Smith et al., 2000).

Finally, it has increasingly been recognized that physical and psychological readiness to return to sport after injury do not always coincide (Crossman, 1997; Ford, & Gordon, 1998). Also, there has been an increase in the incidence of serious injury, at the elite level (Orchard, & Seward, 2002). Therefore, the number of returning athletes who are physically but not necessarily psychologically prepared to re-enter training and competition may also be on the rise.

Injury Rehabilitation

In recent years great improvement has been made in rehabilitation methods that relate to injuries obtained during physical activities. Likewise, sport psychology presents new techniques, which facilitate the rehabilitation procedure and experts use an overall approach to healing of both body and mind.

In one study of how psychological strategies help injury rehabilitation, Ievleva and Orlick (1991) examined whether athletes with fast-healing (fewer than 5 weeks) knee and ankle injuries demonstrated greater use of psychological strategies and skills than those with slow-healing (more than 16 weeks) injuries. The results of the study revealed that fast-healing athletes used more goal setting and positive talk strategies, and, to a lesser degree, more healing imagery than did slow-healing athletes.

More recent studies have also shown that psychological interventions positively influenced athletic injury recovery (Cupal, & Brewer, 2001), one’s mood during recovery (Johnson, 2000), coping (Evans, Hardy, & Fleming, 2000) and confidence restoration (Magyar, & Duda, 2000). For example, in one well conducted randomized clinical trials study, Cupal and Brewer (2001) examined the effects of imagery and relaxation on knee strength, anxiety and pain in 30 athletes recovering from anterior cruciate ligament knee reconstruction. Results revealed that those taking part in the relaxation and guided imagery sessions experienced significantly less reinjury anxiety and pain while exhibiting greater knee strength. Thus, using relaxation and imagery during rehabilitation was beneficial both physically and psychologically.

Psychological training and psychological factors affect injury recovery, emotional reactions to injury and adherence to treatment protocols as well. Specifically, Brewer and his associates (2000) found that self-motivation was a significant predictor of home exercise compliance, while Scherzer et al. (2001) discovered that goal setting and positive self-talk were positively related to home rehabilitation exercise completion and program adherence. These are important findings, as the failure to adhere to medical advice is a major problem in injury rehabilitation.

Psychological Intervention Strategies

Sport psychologists and athletic trainers have advocated various intervention programs for assisting athletes with their psychological recovery from injury (Heil, 1993; Wiese, Weiss, & Yukelson, 1991). The four components common to all the approaches are education, social support, psychological skill training and goal setting. Fortunately, these themes are centered on skills that are familiar to many athletes and with practise these sport-related psychological skills can be transferred to the injury recovery process (Allen, 2002).

(a) Education

The educational component consists of accurate information gathering and effective communication skills. Athletic trainers are vital participants in this stage, because they are primary information source for the athlete. Good athletic trainers are skilled in translating the medical terminology concerning the injury and the rehabilitation process into terms that athlete can understand. The athlete needs to understand specifics about the cause, physical consequences, and psychological reactions that may be related to the injury in clear, non-ambiguous terms (Heil, 1993). The athlete should also be given a sense of the healing process and how physical therapy will aid recovery. It is unreasonable to expect athletes to cope well with injuries they do not understand, and information about the injury and the process of rehabilitation will help them regain the sense of control that the injury may have compromised.

Information about the injury and the rehabilitation process is in the hands of the athletic trainers and medical personnel, and the athletes may have to be assertive in their pursuit of this information. If they are passive and only accept the information that is given, they may not receive it in a clear and understandable way. Alternative sources, such as books, journals, and second opinions, should be pursued as supplements to the original information. The more knowledgeable athletes are about their injuries, the better they will understand and be able to cope with the rehabilitation process.

Another useful educational component to emphasize is that many of the same skills and qualities that have made athletes successful in their sport can be used during the rehabilitation process (Weiss, & Troxel, 1986; Wiese, & Weiss, 1987). Maintaining motivation, coping with pain, long hours of practise and putting out maximal effort are all skills that athletes use in their competitive lives. Drawing parallels between their sport skills and the rehabilitation will help to instill confidence in their ability to recover from injury.

(b) Social support

Social support for injured athletes has been consistently advocated as a means for assisting them in the recovery process (Heil, 1993; Lynch, 1988). Social support has been categorized into six types: listening, technical appreciation, technical challenge, emotional support, emotional challenge and shared social reality (Rosenfeld, Richman, & Hardy, 1989). These sources of support come from a variety of individuals because no one person can provide all these types of support.

Sources of support present in the athlete’s life pre-injury should be maintained during the post-injury rehabilitation period. Strategies to accomplish this include keeping the athlete as involved with the team as possible, attending practises when feasible, and generally helping to maintain his or her identity with the team (Heil, 1993). Additional strategies are to provide social support by the use of a peer model, which “partners” an injured athlete with an athlete who has successfully recovered from the same type of injury (Flint, 1993), but also by the use o support groups (Wiese, & Weiss, 1987).

(c) Psychological skill training

- Imagery training -

Imagery can be a useful adjunct to the recovery process in a number of ways. Four types of imagery that may help athletes to cope with their injuries are mastery (the visualization of successful carrying out the physical therapy and returning to competition), coping (involves mentally rehearsing anticipated problematic situations and effectively dealing with them), emotive (enables athletes to rehearse positive emotional responses to anticipated events) and body rehearsal (involves mentally imaging the injury and what is happening during rehabilitation process) (Rotella, & Heyman, 1986).

Likewise, imagery use can assist in reduction of pain and stress, which both are linked with rehabilitation process. One program to help athletes control their imagery recommends starting with outcome-oriented imagery and then shifting toward process-oriented tasks (Green, 1993).

- Cognitive techniques -

Various models of athletic performance enhancement based on cognitive techniques can modulate to the rehabilitation process of the athletic injury. Many sport psychologists support the use of self-talk in order ascertain the athlete’s opinion about their injury (Ievleva, & Orlick, 1991; Smith, Scott, & Wiese, 1990; Weiss, & Troxel, 1986). If pessimistic inner dialogues are identified and replaced by more positive reactions, athletes can change their opinion about their injury and adhere to the rehabilitation process (Ievleva, & Orlick, 1991).

- Relaxation -

The ability to relax is an important skill for many athletic performances, and it can be readily applied to many aspects of injury recovery. Relaxation can physiologically calm the body when it is experiencing a great amount of stress, as is often the case after an injury or when undergoing physical rehabilitation. Relaxation also increases the circulation of blood, which leads to more effective healing of tissues (Benson, 1975). Relaxation can also be used as a distracting technique to cope with pain because relaxation diverts attention away from worry and tension associated with injury (Weiss, & Troxel, 1986).

(d) Goal setting

Important part of rehabilitation psychological techniques is goal setting. This technique is used to activate injured athletes (Wiese-Bjornstal, & Smith, 1993; Worrel, 1992). In the above process take part a team of experts, physiotherapist sport doctor, coach and the injured athlete. Specifically, they set rehabilitation goals and they establish program for physical and psychological training.

Goal Setting Theories

Goals are defined as the aim or end of an action (Locke, & Latham, 1990). Indeed, most human actions are driven by goals, whether conscious or unconscious. Conscious goals involve purposeful actions driven by an individuals desire for the goal (or end). Unconscious goals (or nonconscious goals) also drive action, but are automatic and are usually confined to biological actions necessary for life (i.e., blood circulation, breathing, digestion) (Locke, & Latham, 1990). Most theories of goal setting pertain to consciously driven goals, as these goals are created and achieved by the purposeful action of individuals (Locke, & Latham, 1990).

Locke and Latham’s Theory of Goal Setting.

Edwin Locke and Gary Latham developed the primary theory used by researchers and practitioners of psychological skills. Locke and Latham’s Theory of Goal setting states those goals have two main attributes: content and intensity. Goal content refers to the object or result of the goal being sought. Goal intensity is the amount of time, effort, and personal investment an individual will put into achieving a goal. Both interact to produce action. Goals also influence the direction, intensity, and persistence of behaviour, and help stimulate the development of task-specific strategies that can be used to achieve certain levels of performance. Locke and Latham developed a goal setting model to illustrate the variables involved in the goal setting process, as well as describe how goals lead to performance satisfaction (Locke, & Latham, 1990; Burton, 1993).

Locke and Latham’s Goal setting model identifies the important aspects involved in goal setting. First, a demand or challenge must be placed on an individual. This leads to the development of some goal or aim to meet the demand. Five moderator variables exist that impact the effect of goals on performance: Ability, commitment, feedback, task complexity, and situational constraints. Performance of a specific action or series of actions leads to rewards that are contingent upon successful achievement of the goal. These rewards can be either internal or external. Additional noncontingent rewards may also occur. These rewards both influence the satisfaction an individual feels upon completion of a goal. Consequences exist after goals have been achieved; individuals may exhibit increased commitment to an organization or be more willing to accept future challenges (Locke, & Latham, 1990). In addition, individuals who are successful in achieving goals exhibit increased self-efficacy and are more likely to set additional demanding goals in the future (Locke, & Latham, 1990).

In this model of goal setting, two attributes have been identified through research as being of particular importance when setting goals. Goal difficulty refers to the perceived challenge the goal presents to an individual. Most organizational goal setting research has supported a linear relationship between goal difficulty and performance, although this has been debated in recent literature (Locke, & Latham, 1990; Burton, 1993). Goal specificity relates to the relative vagueness of a goal. Goals that are more specific lead to additional enhancements in performance. Locke and Latham believe this is due to the inability of an individual to settle for lower levels of performance when specific goals are set. Vague goals (such as ‘do your best’ goals) result in satisfaction with lower levels of performance. Specific goals identify a very particular level of performance that must be met in order for goal achievement to occur.

Four of the moderator variables that Locke and Latham (1990) have identified have also been thoroughly researched. Ability moderates goal effectiveness, as well as the performance increases observed. As an individual’s ability increases, the effects of goal setting may take longer to appear (Burton, 1993). In addition, if the difficulty of the goal exceeds the ability of the individual, goal effectiveness begins to plateau (Locke, & Latham, 1990). The effects of goal commitment on goal effectiveness are dependent upon the level of commitment and the difficulty of the goal. Low-commitment individuals will outperform high-commitment individuals when goal difficulty is low, whereas high-commitment individuals will exhibit greater performance when goal difficulty is high (Locke, & Latham, 1990; Burton, 1993). Burton hypothesizes that this effect is due to the ability of high-commitment individuals to conform their performance to the relative difficulty of a goal. Feedback has an important role in the effectiveness of any goal. Locke and Latham (1990), in a comprehensive review of the literature, found that 17 of 18 studies supported the use of goals in combination with feedback, and 21 of 22 additional studies found that the combination was more effective than feedback alone. Locke and Latham believe that feedback operates through one of two mechanisms: by enhancing self-efficacy or perceived ability, or by allowing for adjustment in goal achievement strategies. The fourth mediator, task complexity, is less clearly understood. Goal setting is more effective when tasks are simple, although this does not mean that complex tasks do not respond to goal setting programs. Locke and Latham (1990) hypothesize that new task-specific strategies must be developed when complex tasks are performed, and then the motivational effects of effort, persistence and focus must make the new strategies work. These four mediators are important to consider when setting goals for enhancing performance.

Locke and Latham’s theory on goal setting has a great deal of support in the literature and is the most widely accepted and researched model in organizational psychology. However, some researchers have criticized the theory for its purely mechanistic view. Garland proposed the cognitive evaluation theory to add an individual perception component to goal setting theory. In addition, goal orientation theory has been proposed as another way goals influence performance.

Garland’s Cognitive Evaluation Theory

Howard Garland developed his cognitive evaluation theory in 1985 to address the cognitive aspects of goal setting. Garland believes that goals are cognitive constructs. His theory works specifically with task goals- those goals that are set by the individual and are not assigned. In order for a goal to be considered in this theory, it must meet the following criteria: it must be an image of a future level of performance that an individual wants to achieve, it must exist prior to the task action, it must be at least ordinal in nature, and they must have motivational significance (Garland, 1985). Garland proposes that task goals are mediated by two specific cognitive constructs: performance expectancy and performance valence. Performance expectancy is defined as .a composite of an individual’s subjective probabilities for reaching each of a number of different performance levels over a range of performances that might be considered. Thus, performance expectancy can be viewed as how probable an individual believes a certain performance level is, in comparison to other performance levels. It is the combination of several different probabilities, from several different performance levels, that creates performance expectancy. Performance valence is defined as a composite of those satisfactions an individual anticipates will be gained by producing each of a number of different performance levels over a range of performances that might be considered. Valence refers to the satisfaction an individual expects to have due to performing, not the satisfaction of performance-related outcomes or rewards. In addition, Garland also recognizes task ability as a mediator of performance (Garland, 1985). In Garland’s theory, three propositions exist to conceptualize and explain the causal relationships between performance, ability, expectancy and valence. The first proposition is that task performance is a positive function of task ability and performance expectancy and a negative function of performance valence. The positive relationship between ability and performance is obvious, and research has shown that the same relationship exists between expectancy and performance (self-efficacy research also plays a role here) (Garland, 1985). The unexpected relationship is that between performance valence and task performance. Individuals who anticipate higher levels of satisfaction (high valence) will typically be more satisfied with lower performance levels. Those who anticipate lower satisfaction with a task will typically work harder to achieve higher levels of performance (Garland, 1985). Thus a negative relationship exists. The second proposition Garland makes is that performance valence is a negative function of task goal and performance expectancy. If a task goal is easy, an individual feels more satisfaction with achieving a higher level of performance than someone else who had a more difficult task goal. Additionally, individuals who exhibit high levels of expectancy (in other words, they feel that a certain performance level is very easy to achieve) will experience lower levels of satisfaction. Indeed, when a task is challenging and expectancy decreases, the satisfaction from reaching a certain level is higher (Garland, 1985).

The third proposition in this theory is that performance expectancy is a positive function of task goal and ability. The relationship between expectancy and ability is easy to see- individuals who have high ability expect more out of their performance on a task. However, a less direct relationship exists between expectancy and task goal. Garland hypothesizes that a number of processes could help explain this proposition. Individuals who set high task goals are more likely to develop task strategies that he/she perceives to more positively affect performance. This could result in higher expectancy. In addition, errors or biases in the estimation of the likelihood of an event (‘wishful thinking’) may also lead to higher expectancy.

Garland (1985) conducted a study to test the model. 176 subjects participated in one of 5 experimental goal-setting conditions. Three of the conditions attempted to influence the task goals by assigning a performance standard (easy, medium, or great difficulty), while two served as control. Subjects engaged in 10 short repeated task trials, and measures of each subject’s task goal were taken prior to beginning the next task. Measures of expectancy (how well an individual feels he/she will do in reference to performance standards) and valence (how satisfied an individual would be with regard to performance standards) were also obtained after each trial. The model was tested by performing a path analysis on the data obtained in the study. Results showed strong support for the model, with all path coefficients displaying statistical significance and all showing the predicted sign (positive or negative). In addition, the combination of performance valence, expectancy and ability predicted 63% of the variance in task performance (Garland, 1985). Several procedures were used to validate the path model, all of which lent additional support to the theoretical model.

However, Locke and Latham (1990) find fault with Garland’s proposition that there is no direct link between a task goal and performance. They cite several studies that provide evidence to support their theory that goals directly influence task performance. Locke and Latham (1990) support the idea that both expectancy and valence may mediate task performance, but not at the expense of the direct link between goals and performance. Thus, they seem to dismiss Cognitive Evaluation Theory, as it does not include any direct effect of goals upon task performance.

In sum, Garland’s Cognitive Evaluation Theory proposes that performance expectancy and performance valence mediate the effects of task goals upon performance. Higher task goals lead to higher levels of performance expectancy and lower performance valence. Performance expectancy has a direct positive effect upon performance, and an indirect positive effect through lower performance valence. Lower levels of performance valence also result in higher performance. All of the proposed paths from task goal to performance result in higher levels of performance. This theory also has positive, although limited, support from empirical study (Garland, 1985) although it does not seem to receive widespread support from other researchers (Locke, & Latham, 1990). This theory, in contrast to Locke and Latham’s Theory, places the emphasis on cognitive constructs- meaning the individual is the determining factor in how goals affect performance.

Goal Orientation Theory

Goal orientation theory has also been proposed as a model for goal setting. Goal orientation theory predicts that an individual’s perceived ability interacts with his/her achievement goals to produce achievement-related behaviour (Weinberg, 2002). Each individual is thought to have a specific goal perspective that will affect his/her self-evaluations of ability, effort expenditure, and attributions for performance outcome.

These cognitive constructs are then thought to influence affect, task strategies, and future task choice, performance level and persistence in the face of failure (Weinberg, 2002). Research in this area has found two predominant goal perspectives: task goal and ego goal orientation. Individuals who exhibit high levels of task goal orientation use self-referenced improvements in performance to determine their ability and competence. These perceptions will drive future goal setting. Those individuals high in ego goal orientation attempt to out-perform others. They reference their ability and competence in comparison to the ability and competence of others. Again, future goal setting is driven by perceived success and failure. Those individuals who are higher in task goal orientation have a tendency to set more realistic goals and tend to perceive higher levels of confidence, persistence, and perceived success than individuals high in ego goal orientation (Weinberg, 2002). These two goal orientations are not independent of one another: some researchers suggest that elite athletes tend to exhibit high levels of both task and ego (Hardy, Jones, & Gould, 1996).

This theory has also received considerable support from empirical research. Gill (2000) identified several studies that demonstrate the link between perception of success and failure and perception of demonstrated ability. Burton (1989) found that swimmers who engaged in a performance-goal setting program had increases in perceived success and perceived ability, and scored very high on the intrinsic and task subscales of the Achievement Orientation Questionnaire (AOQ), indicating a strong preference towards performance orientation (task orientation). Spink and Roberts (1980) found that racquetball players fell into four general categories: Satisfied winners, satisfied losers, unsatisfied winners, and unsatisfied losers. The individual’s feelings of success were more closely related to their perception of ability or quality of performance than actually winning or losing. In addition, Gill (2000) notes that goal orientation should be considered when setting task goals, as individuals higher in task orientation will respond more favourably to process, self-referenced goals, whereas individuals higher in ego orientation will respond well to outcome goals. The key to goal orientation theory is to consider the personal characteristics of the individual and their individual perceptions of success when setting and evaluating goals.

Competitive Goal Setting Model

The key component of both Cognitive Evaluation Theory and Goal Orientation Theory is the role of subjective perceptions in the evaluation of both ability and success in meeting goals. Both theories contend that goals do not lead to performance through purely mechanistic constructs, but instead lead to cognitive evaluations that in turn affect performance. Research in both psychology and sport psychology support all three theories as explanations for the influence of goals on performance. Burton (1993) utilizes Locke and Latham’s theory, as well as cognitive constructs, in his Competitive Goal Setting model. Goal orientations, goal setting styles, types of goals, perceptions and attributions, and affect are all combined with traditional mechanistic constructs to produce the most comprehensive goal setting model to date (Burton, 1993). Indeed, this model appears to address the major aspects of goal setting research that have been demonstrated since Locke began his work in the 1960s. However, there is little empirical data to support this model, and thus it cannot be described in depth as yet.

Locke and Latham’s Theory of goal setting is the most widely supported model in the behavioural science literature, and will be the conceptual and theoretical framework for this study. It is the belief of the investigator that a direct link between goals and performance exists, and is not entirely mediated by the cognitive constructs identified by Garland (1985) and Burton (1993). Locke and Latham (1990) identify all of the major mediators (expectancy, valence, self-efficacy, ability, difficulty, and specificity) in their theory of goal setting, and thus the investigator will address these variables in the discussion. In addition, measures of task satisfaction and confidence are included to help delineate the influence of these factors on overall feelings toward recovery.

Goal Setting Research in Injury Rehabilitation

The goal setting literature in athletic training is very limited, as psychological skill training as an adjunct to traditional rehabilitation has just recently been studied. An exploratory study by Ievleva and Orlick (1991) demonstrated a potential link between faster recovery and the use of psychological skills, most notably goal setting. Thirty-two subjects answered questions about the particular psychological skills they may or may not have used during rehabilitation after either a knee injury (grade 2 medial collateral ligament sprain) or an ankle injury (grade 2 lateral ankle sprain). The skills targeted by the survey were attitude, outlook, level of stress, social support, self-talk, goal setting, and mental imagery. In addition, the recovery time for each participant was obtained, and subjects were ranked and classified as 1) fast healers (took less than 5 weeks to recover), 2) average healers (took between 5-12 weeks to recover, and 3) slow healers (took more than 12 weeks to recover). Correlations revealed that goal setting was negatively correlated to recovery (the more an individual used goal setting, the faster the recovery) (-.310, p<.10). In addition, qualitative analysis revealed that fast healers tended to set goals more often than slow healers, and the use of daily goals (when compared to long-term or return-to-sport goals) was most closely related to faster recovery (Ievleva, & Orlick, 1991).

Evans et al. (2000) demonstrated a potential link between goal setting and increased self-efficacy and motivation. Three subjects participated in a longitudinal action research study, utilizing in-depth interviews, diaries, case notes and interviews with physiotherapists conducted over the course of several months (range 5-12 months). The investigator provided psychological skills training and consulting services during each meeting. Qualitative analysis of the data gathered during the psychological skills intervention demonstrated the efficacy of goal setting as an intervention during injury rehabilitation. In addition, Evans et al. (2000) found support for the use of long- and short-term goals, process and performance goals, and goal flexibility.

More empirical studies by Theodorakis and colleagues (1996 and 1997) show strong support for the effects of goal setting on improved rehabilitation performance. In the 1996 study, 91 female university students (all were university or recreational athletes) participated. Thirty-two of the subjects had sustained a knee injury and undergone arthroscopic knee surgery during the previous 6 months, and had noted quadriceps femoris weakness at the time of the study. All of these individuals were placed in the first experimental group. A second experimental group consisted of non-injured women (n=29), while a third control group (n=30) was comprised of non-injured women. Four trials were completed by each participant on a Cybex 6000 isokinetic dynamometer to measure quadriceps strength (two trials to serve as ability indexes, two to serve as dependent variables). The two experimental groups set goals for each experimental trial. In addition, each participant completed measures of self-satisfaction and self-efficacy prior to the final two trials. Results showed enhanced performance by both goal-setting groups, although there were no differences between the injured and non-injured subjects. Goals were also found to indirectly influence self-efficacy and satisfaction. Individuals in the two goal-setting groups who scored higher on self-efficacy and self-satisfaction were more likely to set higher (more challenging) goals, and this in turn led to better performance on the task. However, it is important to note that, although the correlational data for this relationship was significant, structural equation analysis did not support the conclusion that self-efficacy or self-satisfaction could predict performance (Theodorakis et. al., 1996).

In the 1997 study (Theodorakis et al., 1997), 40 university physical education students participated, split evenly into one experimental group and one control. All were undergoing rehabilitation for arthroscopic knee surgery that had occurred 6-8 weeks prior to the study. The Cybex 6000 isokinetic dynamometer was used for all subjects for the quadriceps strengthening program. The rehabilitation protocol was for 4 weeks of strengthening, with three sessions per week. Individuals in the experimental group set specific performance goals and received immediate feedback on their performance. The control group did not set any goals formally. In addition, measures of self-efficacy, anxiety and self-satisfaction were obtained once a week during the training period. Results showed that the experimental group had significantly more improvement in performance between week 0 (baseline ability measurement) and week 1, and from week 3 to 4. In addition, self-satisfaction scores were significantly lower for the experimental group between weeks 2 and 3, and weeks 3 and 4, indicating higher satisfaction with performance for subjects who set goals. No significant findings between groups were found for either anxiety or self-efficacy. From these two studies, it can be concluded that goal setting positively impacts the rehabilitation process for college-age students who have undergone knee surgery.

Urban Johnson (2000) performed a study of injured athletes who were involved in long-term rehabilitation after athletic injury. Fifty-eight competitive athletes (national and international) who had been referred to a sports medicine centre were selected for inclusion, and all were unable to train or participate in athletics for a minimum of 5 weeks. Fourteen men were randomly selected for the experimental intervention, which consisted of 3 training sessions in stress management/cognitive control, goal-setting, and relaxation/guide imagery. Measures of psychosocial risk factors (which may indicate problematic rehabilitation) as well as a diagnostic checklist for physical readiness for competition (completed by the physiotherapist) were completed at the beginning and end of rehabilitation. Self-ratings of readiness for full competition were obtained at the end of rehabilitation. In addition, the MACL was utilized at the beginning, mid-point, and end of rehabilitation to assess changes in mood. Results found that short-term psychological skills training (including goal setting) enhanced mood as indicated by significant differences on the sum of the MACL at the mid-point and end of rehabilitation. In addition, the experimental group showed higher self-rated perceptions of physical readiness to return to sport. However, goal setting was not perceived to create these changes when considered alone (only relaxation/guided imagery was perceived to create changes in readiness) (Johnson, 2000).

Brewer et al. (2000) and Scherzer et al. (2001) conducted studies investigating the effects of psychological skills on rehabilitation adherence and outcome. Brewer et al. (2000a) recruited 95 patients at a sports medicine clinic who had undergone anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery as subjects. Participants completed several psychological measures just prior to surgery (including measures of self-motivation, social support, athletic identity, and psychological distress). Adherence was measured via a ratio of physical therapy appointments kept: made, a measure of rehabilitation adherence (the Sport Injury Rehabilitation Adherence Scale, SIRAS, completed at each physical therapy session), and subjective ratings of home exercise completion. Rehabilitation outcome measures (knee laxity, functional ability, and subjective symptom ratings) were compiled at the conclusion of physical therapy. Results demonstrated a positive relationship between rehabilitation adherence and functional outcome post-ACL surgery. Regression analysis revealed that attendance, SIRAS score, and home cryotherapy completion were significant predictors of rehabilitation functional outcome. In addition, self-motivation was found to be a significant predictor of adherence. However, regression analysis did not support the hypothesis that adherence mediated the relationship between pre-surgery psychological factors and outcome (Brewer et. al., 2000). Brewer et al. (2000) suggest that psychological interventions that target motivation, reduce psychological distress, and enhance adherence should be used to produce better rehabilitation outcomes.

A second study follows-up on the recommendations of Brewer et al. (2000) by actually surveying the use of such psychological skills in ACL rehabilitation. Scherzer et al. (2001) administered an abbreviated form of the Sport Injury Survey (used by Ievleva & Orlick, 1991) to 54 patients who had recently undergone ACL reconstruction. Attendance at rehabilitation sessions, therapist ratings of adherence (using the SIRAS), and subjective ratings of home exercise and cryotherapy completion were obtained at each physical therapy session. Regression equations predicting home exercise completion and scores on the SIRAS were significant, and goal setting was found to be a significant predictor of both adherence measures. In addition, positive self-talk was associated with completion of home exercises (Scherzer et al., 2001). Results of the Brewer et al. (2000) and Scherzer et al. (2001) studies, taken together, appear to strongly support the potential link between goal setting and enhanced rehabilitation adherence and outcome.

When taken together, it appears that psychological skills may positively influence various rehabilitation constructs, both physical and psychological in nature. The above studies all show significant relationships between goal setting, imagery, relaxation, and/or positive self-talk and various measures of rehabilitation outcome (adherence, functional measures, psychological readiness for return to sport). However, it appears the most robust findings exist for goal setting, with every study finding at least some support for its inclusion in the rehabilitation process.

It is important to recognize the limits of these studies. The Scherzer et al. (2001) and Ievleva and Orlick (1991) studies used retrospective surveys and correlations, which do not show causal relationships and are weak in validity. The two studies by Theodorakis and colleagues (1996 and 1997) were performed on physical education students (not competitive athletes) with knee injuries, thus limiting the generalizability of the findings. And the study by Evans et al. (2000) consisted of qualitative case studies, which again lack the strength of an empirical study. There is a significant gap in the psychology of injury literature in regards to psychological skills and their effects upon rehabilitation. Further study needs to address this issue, by sampling competitive athletes in athletic training settings who exhibit a variety of injuries, and using an intervention to address relationships between psychological skills and recovery.


It is clear from the above that psychological intervention techniques can aid significantly to the rehabilitation process. In particular, the goal setting process seems to have positive clout in the athletic injury recovery, in the attitude of the injured athlete, in the successful confrontation of the injury, in the recovery of confidence and in the adherence to the rehabilitation program.

Undoubtedly, although the beneficial assistance that psychological techniques provide, we should not omit or confine physiotherapist techniques. It is vital for athletic coaches to understand that the cause of an athletic injury could be psychological and not only physical. Finally, the use of psychological intervention techniques and specifically goal setting process in the rehabilitation process is prominent and seems to have positive results.


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