Racing to Recovery? Motorsport, occupational therapy & combat injury

With the Invictus Games being held next month, the media is full of inspirational stories of combat injured men and women who are rebuilding their lives by being involved with sport. I saw for myself how transformational being part of a motorsport team can be in the three years I spent as a volunteer with Race2Recovery. This blog will give my reflections as an occupational therapist from my time with the team and I’ll tell you what else I think is needed to support recovery beyond injury.

Race2Recovery came about when two friends at Headley Court, having been through their rehabilitation, were wondering what to do next with their lives. They decided that their recovery would be helped by being involved in motorsport; but not just any motorsport, the most challenging race in the World, the Dakar Rally. The desire to face the most difficult and extreme goals is not unusual, Walking with the Wounded and Row2Recovery being further examples.

Occupational therapists work with people to enable them to participate fully in life and to make the most of every opportunity. For people recovering from combat injury there is a sense of loss of previous occupational roles and identity; it is important to support the creation of a life that has new meaning and purpose. Activities have to be relevant and appropriate to the individuals in recovery; sport has many features which appeal to the younger and often male participant (although not exclusively of course). The need to make a connection with men who are struggling to cope has very much been brought into our minds this week with the sad loss of Robin Williams.

Motorsport has some advantages over other forms of sport because it does not have a special category for people with disabilities. The amputee drivers, with their race suits on, look like any other driver or co-driver. It is a physically and mentally challenging sport that earns respect and therefore brings status. Veterans with a disability do not want to be defined by that disability and a positive self-image and self-esteem are vital to successful functioning and full recovery. In motorsport integration and social inclusion are possible.

One of the most significant experiences of being a part of Race2Recovery is the close team work that is required, often in difficult and challenging situations. This is a vital element for people who have been in the military when they are recovering. The team work in Race2Recovery provides a bridge from the military and helps veterans to adjust to working in close proximity with civilian team members (not always easy). Team activities forge lasting friendships with other veterans and civilians, even when separated by thousands of miles, thanks to social media connections.

I have seen first-hand that wounded veterans often overcome multiple and ongoing problems. Recovery is a long haul when you’ve had long periods as an inpatient, multiple injuries including amputation, brain injury and mental health problems. It is important to take into account not only the physical aspects of rehabilitation and but also the psychological and social aspects. The combat injured veterans need support over an extended period of recovery. Many kinds of help are needed with relationships, finances, finding work, management of pain and mental health problems. If any one aspect of the rehabilitation goes wrong then life can come to a complete halt. Participating in a sport might give everyone a happy feeling, but there needs to be other help available and readily accessible.

Overcoming huge challenges and excelling at a sport or in a particular event can be hugely rewarding and transforming. Dr Mick Collins (2014) discusses this peak experience in his book ‘The Unselfish Spirit’; from the lowest point in your life, which might be seen as a spiritual emergency or complete loss of meaning and purpose, you can be ‘re-born’ and reach self-actualisation and a new sense of self. Occupational therapists believe that this has to be achieved through ‘doing’ (engagement with activity) to achieve our full potential. Those of us who were a part of the team during the Dakar Rally in 2013 will never forget the intense emotions of that moment when the race car, called Joy, crossed the finish line against the most extraordinary odds (see Colene Evans-Allen’s blog for the full story).

Nick Caddick (2014) working in the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport at Loughborough University has published a literature review demonstrating the value of sport and physical activity for supporting the well-being and rehabilitation of veterans with disabilities and those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). His findings have a strong resonance for occupational therapists. His themes include (among others): focus on ability, identity and self-concept, a sense of achievement and accomplishment. The evidence reviewed by Nick demonstrates clear physical, psychological and social benefits of sport (Caddick 2014). I’ll tell you more about this review in my next blog.

Nick is about to publish research about veterans who are finding that surfing can play a part in recovery from PTSD. In addition to the benefits discussed above, surfing has the transformative element of being an activity in nature, or ecotherapy. The ‘spiritual awareness of a connection with the natural world’ (Dustin et al 2011 cited in Caddick & Smith 2014) is also a key message in ‘The Unselfish Spirit’ (Collins 2014). I’ll be discussing the research into the effectiveness of surfing in my next blog, citing research from both sides of the Atlantic that used different research methodologies.

For a first person account of Tony Harris’ recovery through motorsport in Race2Recovery and a good account of Dakar Rally 2013 read this blog from Colene Evens-Allen:


Caddick N & Smith B (2014), The impact of sport and physical activity on the well-being of combat veterans; A systematic review. Psychology of Sport and Exercise 15, 9-18.

Collins M (2014), The Unselfish Spirit. Permanent Publications, Hampshire.


The Race2Recovery car ‘Joy’ was bought for the team by the Peter Harrison Foundation. Pictures are from Dakar Rally 2013

MOTORSPORT -  DAKAR 2013 - PART 1Race2Recovery celebrate as their car approaches the finish Dakar Rally 2...MOTORSPORT -  DAKAR 2013 - PART 1



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