“If you asked me what brought me out of my depression, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a single revelatory moment. As an athlete, my mood was hitched to my physical well-being, and as that started to improve, the darkness lifted gradually, like a sky lightening at dawn.” –Picabo Street from her book, Picabo: Nothing to Hide
Picabo Street grew up in Idaho and became a world champion ski racer and Olympic gold-medalist. She joined the U.S. Ski Team at age 17 and shortly after entered the World Cup circuit. Street soon won several events and quickly emerged as one of the best female ski racers in the world. The combination of her abilities and vivacious personality put her in the spotlight; the media called her “fearless.” In 1996, Street won the downhill World Championships; she also took gold in Super G at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
Soon after her victory in Nagano, however, Street had a horrific crash going 70 mph in Switzerland. The crash cracked her left femur and tore apart her right ACL and lateral meniscus.
What followed was a long period of recovery that pushed Street into a deep depression. It seemed like her career was finished, and for months she cut off all ties to the outside world.
In Picabo: Nothing to Hide, Street recalls this intense period of struggle. “I felt stunted, like an animal caged in my own body. … ‘Healthy’ seemed so far away, like a distant country for which I had no passport, no itinerary, no way of knowing how long it would take to get there.”
Whether you are an Olympic competitor or a recreational enthusiast, injury affects athletes of all abilities and backgrounds and can feel like a crisis of epic proportions. Street’s story speaks to something many athletes understand: Injury has a subsequent effect on mental health. It takes away a part of who we are, leaving us in the dark to pick up the pieces and rebuild.
“I knew that my legs would eventually heal; the thing I worried about most was my psyche,” Street says in her autobiography.
According to Kay Porter in her book The Mental Athlete, “Injury often leads to an attack on self-image and a loss of self-confidence.” Similarly, if we are strongly identified with a particular sport, injury can mean the loss of our own self-definition.
Professional basketball player Jamila Wideman once said, “When you talk about an injury and the kind of depression you go through, it’s not just because you’re out of shape and you can’t go out and play. You’re missing a part of you. That’s what’s painful. That’s what hurts.”
Eight-time Grand Slam tennis champion Andre Agassi was plagued by injuries throughout his professional career. Agassi describes this entwined dynamic of self and sport in existential terms, “If tennis is life, then what follows tennis must be the unknowable void. The thought makes me cold.”
Agassi’s strong athletic identity made it difficult for him to see life beyond tennis. He spent years battling injuries even though, as he reveals in his autobiography, Open, he hated tennis “with a dark and secret passion.” Perhaps Agassi didn’t know who he was without the game and this was why he kept returning to it over and over again despite his worn-out body.
Even though injuries undermine our identity, they also present athletes with an inescapable form of feedback. In their book, Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, Chungliang Al Huang and Jerry Lynch say, “Injury is a natural messenger crying out, ‘Attention – something is not right!’” In other words, injury is the body’s way of making us pay attention. Maybe we are pushing too hard and need a different training regimen, maybe our biomechanics are incorrect, or maybe we are participating in this sport for the wrong reasons.
After Street’s injury, she grappled with the question: “What had I done to deserve this?” She eventually comes to a conclusion “there were lessons I was meant to learn from my suffering, and that I needed to open up and let them flow into me.”
Depending on the nature and severity of the injury, a simple shift may be all that’s required—like a new approach to training. For example, a lot of runners who become injured continue to train in a pool, where there is less impact on the body. Such a change in routine can actually improve performance in the long run.
That’s not to say having an injury is easy or a blessing in disguise. Many athletes have to deal with career-ending injuries, extended periods of recovery, or a series of injuries that drag on for months…even years.
If the injury requires complete downtime, it can be an opportunity to turn our attention to something else while we recover. For instance, maybe there is a project or hobby you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t made the time. This could be an opportunity to venture down a new path. Plus, it decreases that paralyzed feeling of spinning in place while wishing for an instant recovery.
If you are struggling to maintain a healthy state of mind during an injury, here are three ways of reframing the healing process:
- Making a Plan. “Guard yourself against panic by gathering as much information as you can about your injury so that you have the means to strategize your recovery,” say Huang and Lynch in Thinking Body, Dancing Mind. Essentially, you are planning the course of your healing. Write down the steps you need to take. Set new goals. Come up with alternative ways to train or other ways to spend your time. These steps will give you back some measure of control.
- Understanding Resistance. A lot of the emotional distress we experience is because of our resistance to the injury. In his classic novel, The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, Dan Millman writes: “Events may create physical pain, but they do not in themselves create suffering. Resistance creates suffering. Stress happens when your mind resists what is.”
- Imagery and Positive Self-Talk. Dr. John F. Murray, a famous sports psychologist, talks about the benefits of using self-talk and imagery to combat negative thinking. If you notice yourself becoming increasingly negative, come up with an affirmation or mantra to say to yourself every time you have a negative thought about your situation. For example, “This experience is teaching me how to focus; therefore, making me stronger.” Dr. Murray also suggests using positive imagery such as winning a race to oppose negative thinking.
Any injury that takes longer than a month to heal forces us to mentally rewire. We have to reach deep inside for reserves of patience and perseverance, reconstructing our goals and perceptions, putting back the pieces of fallen confidence, even rebuilding our identities. Many athletes have experienced psychological benefits from this kind of experience. The challenge increases our mental lucidity. We are forced to open up and take in new ideas, our motivations and goals become clearer, and we execute our game from a place not driven by ego.
We also get to know ourselves in a new way. As Street says in her autobiography, “I’ve been searching for my old, fearless, invincible self for the past three years, but the person I’ve found is new—changed by adversity into someone more human, more humble, more compassionate.”
Picabo Street ended up cutting her recovery time in half. She returned to competitive skiing in 2000 and raced in the 2002 Olympics in Utah, finishing 16th, before choosing to retire. This time, the decision to leave the world of professional ski racing was on her terms.
About the author: Brianna Bemel is a student of life. Though her formal background is in psychology, she has ventured down many paths from working with at-risk youth to being a competitive athlete. She is currently working towards a career in freelance writing.