Winning — Again

Sometimes life knocks you out of the game. Here’s how to get back on top, mentally and physically.

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Lindsey Vonn was flying high — literally.

The Olympic skiing champ, a four-time World Cup winner, shot off a hill at the 2013 Alpine World Ski Championships in Austria and ended her run in a spectacular crash that shredded two ligaments in her right knee and broke the upper end of her tibia. Cameramen picked up the sound of her screaming in pain as they shot video of her being airlifted off the mountain.

For some athletes, that would have been a career-ending injury. Vonn, however, chose to look at it as a “career-delaying” event. And although she announced she was going to sittout the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Vonn is having surgery to repair her knee and is preparing to compete in the World Championships in Vail next February.

That’s the mental attitude, say sports psychologists, that separates winners from everyone else. Regardless of the nature of the setback you may be facing, there is a way back to success — in every area of life.

Keeping the Faith

“Challenges are a test to make us stronger, to realize we can overcome,” says Howard Falco, a self-empowerment expert and author of I AM: The Power of Discovering Who You Really Are (Penguin Books, 2010). “Any time there’s a traumatic event, the first thing that gets attacked is the sense of identity. [For athletes], it’s so tied to their physical being that it can threaten all their dreams.”

Falco advises athletes who have become injured to first accept the truth that they are sidelined for a while and that it will take time to overcome this obstacle — but also to have faith that they will overcome it. “The time frame of healing is impacted by their outlook, their state of mind and their optimism,” Falco says. “It can make a huge difference.”

Keep in mind that though your athletic momentum may have come to a momentary standstill, “athlete” is only one of the hats you wear; you also may be a wife, a mother, a friend, a student, a boss or employee, and you can continue to be your best in all those roles as your physical healing progresses. So even though “athlete” is temporarily benched, the rest of your identity remains unchanged.

Harnessing Your Fears

Unfortunately, optimism isn’t always easy to come by. Injuries are marked not just by physical pain but also by anxiety. For elite athletes, there are thoughts of losing their starting position or endorsement deals and worries about never again being on top. And of course, there is always the lingering fear of being re-injured.

Shaw Bronner, Ph.D., director of physical therapy at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City, hears firsthand about the fears and pressures injured athletes face on a daily basis. Her job is to help dancers work through them — and neutralize their urge to rush through the process.

“First, understand what your injury is, then figure out how you can cross-train and minimize your deconditioning so you can come back,” she says. “Set realistic goals during that healing process so you have something to achieve in a graded progression.” For example, if your injury requires surgery, ask your doctor to give you some physical therapy exercises to do before the operation. “Studies show those who do [these exercises] recover more quickly,” Bronner says.

And that fear of re-injuring yourself? Face it: It’s a possibility. But instead of focusing on that, hone in on the present and what you’re doing to prevent that from happening. Also, key in on why you want to make a comeback in the first place, remembering your love and passion for your sport and gleaning motivation from that feeling, Bronner advises.

Look on the Bright Side

Being sidelined does have a silver lining, though: It gives you time to analyze what happened and to set the mental stage to be even better than you were before.

“Often, people who get injured weren’t doing everything they could to be their best,” Bronner says. “Now is the time to throw away the bad habits you’ve picked up and renew yourself.”

Often, that means stripping back down to basics. As you heal, your body needs to relearn once-familiar movement patterns and correct any mistakes you may have been making previously. Take the time to relearn your skills correctly, and adjust your program to be better than it was before. For example, do you do your dynamic stretches before lifting? How is your form on strength moves? Rework your programming to include things that were missing to make it better than ever.

If you’re part of a team, go to practices and learn from the mistakes and achievements of your teammates. “Observation is an important part of renewal because seeing the examples of correct and incorrect form assist in the re-education process,” Bronner says.

If you can’t physically do your activity yet, keep your mind in the game by watching videos of others doing your sport. See them execute the moves perfectly, then mentally rehearse these same motions in your own mind. “Putting yourself in that image, succeeding with those skills, is a powerful way of decreasing stress and increasing confidence and self-esteem,” Bronner says.

The Power of the Mind

Falco agrees. He believes a person’s mental outlook — whether negative or positive — can actually manipulate the energy around them to change outcomes. For example, when the kids on his son’s baseball team took the field with positive beliefs about themselves and hopeful expectations about the game, the ball bounced into their gloves more often than it sailed over their heads — totally changing their performance and win-loss record, and giving them confidence for future success. Another athlete Falco worked with — an aging AAA hockey player — learned to quell his self-doubts and instead have faith that everything he faced would turn out fine.

Shortly after adopting this attitude, he was called up to the National Hockey League and scored a goal in his first game.

“Never underestimate the creative power inside you,” Falco says. “When you are aligned with the truth and belief in that power, you’re in the strongest place possible.”

It seems that Lindsey Vonn is very familiar with this place and is doing all she can — mentally and physically — to make her comeback.

“Don’t worry, guys, this is only a temporary setback,” she wrote to fans on Facebook. “Nothing will keep me from picking myself back up and continuing to fight for my dreams.”

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