Injury & Rehabilitation Research


Description Exploratory research into the emotional experience of injury and recovery among athletes through user interviews
Client  Playbook Five (via Bentley University)
Date  Mar – April 2018
Role Qualitative researcher
Skills User research, journey mapping, persona creation
Tools Sketch


Playbook Five is a VR company whose flagship product aims to improve the play learning process for football teams through virtual reality. They are interested in exploring other applications for their technology among athletes and one area of interest is the potential to facilitate recovery after sports injuries. I performed exploratory research to uncover insights about the mental and emotional experience of athletic injury and potential opportunities for future development.

Research Questions

  • What emotions does a person experience when rehabilitating an injury?
  • How does someone manage their emotions when rehabilitating from an injury?

Study Design

Participants were interviewed individually in out-of-context remote sessions conducted via video conferencing. The sample included five female participants between the ages of 28-30 who are regularly physically active and have experienced injury. Participants discussed the topics of physical and mental health, reviewed the experience of recovering from a significant physical injury, and completed activities including an empathy map and a graphical representation of their mood over time throughout the experience.

Participants completed activity worksheets to supplement and inspire conversation (left: mood graph, right: empathy map)



The primary persona resulting from this project is the High Performer. The High Performers take athleticism and competition seriously and rate their performance level highly. Physical activity is central to their identity and lifestyle, making injury an extremely disruptive and demoralizing experience. Expectations of quicker-than-average and linear recovery are frequently thwarted, compounding frustration. High Performers often lean on personal social networks for an emotional outlet and support during this time. High Performers are eager to regain their previous performance levels and seek multiple modes of rehabilitation.

The Pragmatist is a secondary persona uncovered in this research. Pragmatists value physical activity as one component of a balanced lifestyle. Pragmatists may have more accurate expectations of the realities of recovery based on more reserved estimations of their physical abilities. Pragmatists tend towards self-reliance and value accurate information and productive action.

Journey Map

Both High Performers and Pragmatists experience a similar range of emotions throughout the journey from injury to recovery, but High Performers tend to experience them more intensely. At the highest level, the emotional experience of injury and recovery consists of four main stages: (1) the inciting incident followed by a period of uncertainty regarding severity and type of injury; (2) diagnosis and possible intervention, i.e. surgery, which often heightens disappointment but also serves as a turning point by beginning the path to recovery; (3) the highs and lows of a non-linear and sometimes recursive rehabilitation process; and (4) adjustment to a “new normal” that may include a reduction in physical ability and in which a heightened awareness and lingering tentativeness regarding potential re-injury fades with time but does not disappear.


Findings from this research center around the themes of adjustments to self-image, setting appropriate expectations, seeking useful information, tracking progress, exploring treatment options, and finding alternative activities to meet the needs typically fulfilled by physical activities. These themes suggest opportunities related to supporting physical therapy exercise practice, connecting injured athletes with people who are or have been in similar situations, and improving understanding of the healing process to help set appropriate expectations and increase comfort and motivation levels.

Limitations & Future Research

This was an initial phase of preliminary research using a small convenience sample, so findings have limited generalizability and are best used as a basis for continued investigation. In addition to expanding research to a larger number of participants, a particularly valuable approach may be a longitudinal investigation, perhaps a diary study and/or contextual interviews, of people who are currently in the process of recovering from an injury. This would provide a far greater level of detail and real-time information about how people experience and cope with rehabilitation.