Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk – Female athletes, injuries and sports psychology
Dr. Joan’s Sports Psych Talk-
Just looking over past columns, I almost forgot an important area of work for sports psychologists. This is the treatment of injured athletes.
Injuries cause a whole range of reactions. They contribute to an athlete feeling down or stir up anxiety when they can’t work out. Still others go into denial and push themselves even further. This can make the injury worse. The latter is the most difficult for athletes who usually have a high tolerance for pain. Competitive athletes need to know their bodies well enough to see how far they push.
In 1993 when I was running Western States 100, I discovered what high pain tolerance is. Running through the snow, I developed blisters on my feet by mile 20. By mile 44, volunteers put second skin on, covering the bottom of each foot. After crossing the river at mile 79, my shoes were taken off in front of my pacer. She took one look at my feet, and realized I was running on sheer will. I finished, but hours behind my time goal. I had to walk around in Birkenstocks in time to get my feet in shape for the Ride and Tie National Championship two weeks later. They healed and I competed. I realized I had a high tolerance for pain, physical and mental. Lesson learned.
As each athlete trains, they need to pay attention to their mind and body. Persistent painful areas should be checked out from a physical standpoint. Mental toughness can carry you far. When an athlete is side-lined and continually frustrated or angry, this is the time to seek assistance with a sports psychologist. Without it, injuries can be difficult to deal with. Guiliana Rende, a former pro snowboarder, had a series of four injuries. These injuries occurred over a 13-month period, causing her to pull out of competition. This is a time that a sports psychologist might have helped her. At age 30, she said, “My mind and body were defeated.” She never sought mental assistance for her sporting life and quit competing.
In contrast, Marla Streb, an internationally known and highly successful downhill mountain bike racer (photo at right), sustained the following injuries in a 17-year career: 5 broken collarbones (all within 2 years), 6 concussions, blown ACL twice and PCL once, 200 stitches, broken ankle, broken fingers, and fused thumb. Physically, I call her the bionic woman. Her mental toughness is famous. During her career, she used performance enhancement techniques, such as mental rehearsal for each race. Marla once commented to me, “you win or lose in your helmet.” She is General Manager of Luna Chix Pro Team whose headquarters is in Sausalito.
Another example of a mentally tough rising star cyclist is Shelley Evans Olds (photo below). She is a member of the US National Road Racing Team, Peanut Butter & Co./Proman team and a coach for Whole Athlete in San Anselmo. In March of this year, Shelley had a terrible crash at the World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark. She flipped over her bars and did a face plant. She was up and racing two days later even though her mouth and teeth were severely damaged. She continues to heal and race.
Sports psychologists’ role in working with athletes who are injured range from a supportive role to dealing with more serious issues, such as severe depression. Depression can be spotted in an injured athlete’s anger, irritability, isolating from friends, fatigue, difficulties with sleeping, problems with decision-making, memory problems, and sense of worthlessness. Any or all of these issues may be present. A pro and Olympic hopeful road cyclist, whom I’ll call Pam, was a client of mine years ago. She experienced a career ending back injury. She sought help to assist her deal with the transition and her ensuing depression. We’d discuss her riding and how it used to be. We talked about her need to ride slower due to her back limitations. We discussed the lifestyle transition she needed to make. Inevitably, she would go ride with her husband and friends in her old style and experience dramatic pain. After these rides, she was unable to ride due to the extraordinarily high pain level and her depression would return. The cycle repeated several times, although Pam increasingly recognized the pattern of this destructive behavior. This behavior began decreasing. She eventually began to accept her limitations, mourning the loss of her old life. She was isolating from friends, but soon realized they were all still her friends. The only difference was she couldn’t ride to their intensity. She could ride slower and socialize with them. Eventually, she became accepting with some remaining ambivalence and became pregnant. Having a new exciting focus in Pam’s life helped her to finish her transition.
Sports psychologists who work with injured athletes have specific tasks they assist the athlete to go through. These might include the following: provide education about injury, reset goals, deal with self esteem issues, mentally adjust intensity levels for rehab and beyond, develop new coping skills, and work collaboratively with medical personnel. This can be a brief or more prolonged course of treatment. Sports psychologists can play an especially important role in dealing with the mental side of injury. With female athletes, the support of family and friends is especially important. They need their “Circle of People” as Shelley Evans Olds describes her family and friends supporters.
Dr. Joan Steidinger is a sports and clinical psychologist with offices in Mill Valley and San Francisco. She has been practicing sports psychology with clients ranging from recreational to pro athletes for the past 17 years.
As an athlete herself, she has been a competitive ultrarunner, Ride & Tie competitor, and ultradistance cyclist.