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When Injuries Go to Your Head

No matter how hard we train, take care of ourselves, and listen to our bodies, injuries happen. Whether a nagging pain that sneaks up on you as you ride your bike to work every morning, or a fall that takes you by surprise while you rush down the stairs, we are not invincible. Our bodies are strong and made to self-repair for a reason; maybe we never exist in a perfect, pain-free, functioning state? Is that just part of being human? Our bodies' systems are constantly at work, and it's our job to trust in those daily reparations (and help them along as much as we can, from listening to your physical therapist to getting enough sleep, good food, and water). Sometimes, what marks true resilience is how we mentally process our injuries and view the healing process.

I've been a dancer my entire life, and like so many I started at an early age. As I grew into my body and intensified my training, even my malleable teenage knees and hips oftentimes screamed at me. The demands of ballet six days a week can hurt even the youngest bodies, so already as a teenager I started coping with injuries - both acute and chronic. When I first faced these obstacles to my dancing, it was nothing short of devastating (a teenager's propensity for drama plus trying to build a ballet career before you hit 18...whoa!), and that was the negative attitude I learned to turn on in the face of pain. At daily ballet class, teachers wouldn't necessarily address coping with mental barricades that are so easy to build up around injuries ("I can't, it hurts, I'll make it worse, I have to sit out"). And still, supposedly older and wiser, every day when I jump into a dance class, practice yoga, or run for the train, aches and pains are extremely discouraging and even disorienting ("wait, why won't my arm move like it did yesterday!?").

I recently started thinking about these mental blocks when I read this aptly-timed article about Olympic skier Steven Nyman using the power of his brain to move on from injuries. "You become intensely aware of exactly what could happen if you crash; wanting to avoid those devastating consequences, you slow down just a hair, well-founded fear trumping the craving to win," the author, Jeffrey Marlow, says. As a result, the US ski team added a new approach this year called "positive psychology," which is meant to "[prompt] the athlete to rebuild trust in his body, his intuition, and his mental construct of risk" through visualization, journaling, relaxation, and focus.

Cultivating mental adaptability and an awareness of your dynamic body is one thing that can be seriously overlooked in any kind of athletic training. Your body will change and feel different every day - sometimes that's because you broke your leg yesterday, and sometimes that's because you didn't eat breakfast. No matter how severe or trivial an issue, you have to listen to and process what your body is saying, use your intuition, and then keep going (even in a small way - apply ice?).  Not succumb to fear and frustration and defeat. How can we incorporate psychological support into our physical practices? Understanding that your body's got your back, even though you may never feel perfect? Trust?

 

Last year, I severely sprained my ankle (a nasty little thing to heal!), and as I draw closer to discharge from physical therapy this month, my last obstacle is my brain. As it gets stronger, I still have the memory of the fall that tore up that little joint. Last week at physical therapy I jumped for the first time in eight months and I started laughing at the absurdity of my hesitation. My brain was saying, "No, no, don't do that!! Remember what happened last time??" and I had to force myself to push off, trust myself, and take a risk. And you know what? I landed in one piece - because my body had done it's job and I didn't let my brain hold me back.

 

By Hayley Muth