Lindsey Vonn’s Comeback Trail: The Psyche of an Injured Athlete

10th January 2014 | Stephen Duncan

News Regions: Colorado, France, Russia

Resorts in this article: Vail, Val d'Isère

Lindsey Vonn, Lake Louise 2012

Copyright: Agence Zoom

With one month to go until the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, much of the recent pre-event discussion has focused on the one U.S. standout who won’t be there—skier, Lindsey Vonn. After reconstructive surgery on two right knee ligaments in February 2013 and a partial re-tear of her ACL in November, the country’s most famous downhill skier finally called it quits on her aggressive return attempt, conceding on January 7, 2014, that she won’t be able to safely defend her 2010 downhill gold.

The decision will allow the 29-year-old to undergo surgery again and resume a more thorough recuperation process with her sights set on the 2015 world championships in Vail. Equally as important to her physical mending will be her psychological health and the eventual mental capacity to deal with such a significant injury. Whereas her knee’s wellbeing will depend on a mix of strength, endurance and rest, her psyche on the comeback trail will likely rely on trust and mental preparation, according to sports psychologist Dr. Steve Portenga.

“The hallmark of great athletes is their ability to develop a trust in performance,” he says. “They have to trust their preparation, the equipment, their technique, that the edge of the ski will hold. When an injury happens, how do you get that trust back?”

Portenga is CEO and founder of iPerformance Psychology, a mobile app company focused on mental skills training for athletes. He is also a professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver, with specializations in elite performance and injury, among others. While Portenga has never met or worked with Vonn, his involvement with USA Track & Field brought him to the 2012 Summer Games in London as an on-site consultant with the team, so he is familiar with the physical, mental and emotional rigors that Olympic-level competitors experience.

Lindsey Vonn

Copyright: Alain Grosclaude/AGENCE ZOOM

ROAD TO RECOVERY: MIND & BODY 

Each athlete’s personality, temperament and reaction to injury or other distractions vary on an individual basis. However, there are often foundational mental processes that they go through on the road to recovery.

“The process of becoming an elite athlete is the same as going through rehab,” says Portenga. “A lot of athletes go through the motions, but if you go through rehab with purpose, you can get back to doing what you need to do to perform at a high level.”

Setbacks, such as Vonn’s non-finish in Val d'Isere, France and the subsequent decision to forego the Sochi Games, can be frustrating emotionally, but psychological recuperation typically envisions these speed bumps as part of recovery.

“Odds are, something isn’t going to feel the way you want it to, but you prepare for that,” says Portenga. “Doubt, anxiety, fear... there are contingency plans that you try to put into place for that so you hopefully don’t have to worry about them.”

One approach Portenga often discusses with his rehabbing clients is viewing the difference between “probability and possibility.” The former implies the likelihood of making it all the way back to peak performance, while the latter signifies the chance that it could happen at all. Portenga suggests that if competing for the podium is at all a future possibility, then the individual should focus on that regardless of the probability of it happening. There are times in an injured athlete’s recovery where probability doesn't really matter—if it's possible, however slim, mental preparation should be focused on simply being ready to compete.

Another process is that of Focus-Distractions-Refocus. The initial step involves concentrating on one or two motor controls that can stabilize the mind during performance. In this case, a skier could hone in on keeping the knees bent at a certain angle or maintaining consistent aerodynamic posture. Step two consists of identifying potential environmental (the snow is icy) or emotional (I’m scared of tearing my ligament again) disruptions in advance. The final step is all about knowing how to systematically shed those distractions at the moment they arise so that they never become an issue that reduces performance.

As logical as it may sound, a multitude of variables can introduce a curveball into the process. “If too much of your identity is being an athlete, it’s precarious,” says Portenga of one challenge he has encountered with Olympic hopefuls. “If you get injured again and over-identify, all of a sudden, uncertainty can flare up. What might happen if you fail?”

Vonn has already passed the test once, successfully fighting back from a painful deep tissue bruise on her way to gold and bronze at the Vancouver Games. For the next 12 months, she’ll once again draw on her strong team of doctors and emotional supporters as she attempts to repeat the feat and continue her dominance in skiing. 

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