Sports Psychologists to the Rescue - Canadian Olympic Hopefuls in Trouble



At a time when Canada’s Olympians should be putting the final touches on their training for Beijing, many are trying to overcome serious injuries and play catch-up. From Shewfelt to Felicien, the list of walking wounded is long, Allan Maki and Dawn Walton write

May 10, 2008

CALGARY – It happened faster than you can say “an Arabian double front layout gone wrong.”

In a fraction of a second, Kyle Shewfelt was soaring through the air, his legs locked underneath him for a spot-on landing; the next, he was lying on the mat, curled up in a ball of pain.

The damage was extensive: The top of the shin bone in both his legs had splintered with a loud crack; the right leg would need a screw to hold things in place; the left leg required a metal plate and two screws; and both knees were hyperextended, with the left one suffering a strained lateral collateral ligament.

As injuries go, it was as if Shewfelt had been jarred and snapped in a violent car crash.
And yet the worst news of all was the date of the accident: Aug. 27, 2007, less than a year before the start of the Beijing Summer Olympics. For Shewfelt, the 2004 Olympic champion in the floor exercise, it meant he had precious little time to climb out of his wheelchair and out of his braces and regain the strength needed to be a world-class gymnast.

“I was in such pain, but I managed to walk out of the gym on crutches,” Shewfelt said of his training disaster in Germany. “I wanted to convince myself I was okay.”

Shewfelt is not alone in trying to convince himself he’ll be healed and hell-bent for China come August. Rarely, if ever, has there been a Canadian team bound for the Summer Games with more physical and emotional scars than the beleaguered class of 2008. We’re talking serious setbacks to high-profile athletes capable of winning medals - from Shewfelt’s “two busted knees” to hurdler Perdita Felicien’s strained left foot.

Felicien’s injury, and her refusal this week to talk about it, has reverberated throughout the Canadian track community. No one is sure whether the former world champion will be healthy enough to compete in Beijing, where even a healthy Canadian team was going to be pressed hard to equal its 12-medal total from the Athens Olympics in 2004.

And Felicien’s woes are just the tip of the broken metatarsal.

Also hobbled are: heptathlete Jessica Zelinka, who ruptured a tendon in her left foot at the Pan American Games last year and has had to relearn how to high jump by taking off on her right foot; diver Alexandre Despatie, who broke a bone in his right foot in early April and has had to miss several weeks of training; diver Blythe Hartley, who is still recovering from the loss of her brother, who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma; trampoline gymnast Karen Cockburn, who is coming off knee surgery last fall; and kayaker Adam van Koeverden, who had surgery to remove a tumour before breaking a bone in his left hand last spring.

Toss in swimmer Brent Hayden’s recent run of back spasms - he figured they were caused by a Nike photo shoot in Los Angeles - and it’s a wonder Canada’s Olympic motto isn’t “Citius, Altius, Unlucky-us.”

[b]“I don’t ever remember so many top performers having to deal with injuries of this magnitude,” sports psychologist Peter Jensen said. “It’s not only that they’re injured, but they’re pretty severe. It’s a little disillusioning to hear.”

For sports psychologists, mental preparation is as critical as physical preparation, especially in an Olympic year. With an injury or emotional trauma added to the mix, the mental strain is even more pronounced.

Jensen has worked with hundreds of athletes through six Olympic Games. He is counselling a number of Beijing-bound participants in an effort to keep them from contracting an affliction he calls “optimal rectumitus.”

"It’s a shitty outlook on things and you start to worry: ‘Oh, my God, I’m injured. I’m not going to make this,’ " he said.[/b]

[b]Penny Werthner is the official sports psychologist for this Olympic team and teaches human kinetics at the University of Ottawa.
She is a firm believer that some good can come from adversity. At the very least, it can provide an athlete with a renewed sense of purpose.

“I know this may be a trite thing to say, but sometimes I think it makes them stronger,” said Werthner, who ran track at the Montreal Olympics in 1976.[/b]

[b]"Sometimes it can give them a different perspective that really helps with their performance. … Are we going to go to the Games and really try to do well or are we going to sit around and be bummed because I’ve been injured for six months?

“There’s always, always a choice about how you’re going got attack this.”[/b]

It hasn’t been easy for some to regain the right mindset.

Hartley, who won a bronze medal four years ago in synchronized diving at Athens, almost quit the sport during her preparations for Beijing. When Strachan Hartley, her older brother and captain of the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds’ 1997 Vanier Cup-winning football team, died of lymphoma, Blythe Hartley was so distraught she was ready to give up on diving.

But coming from an athletic family, with a father who had competed at the 1972 Sapporo Olympics in bobsleigh, the love of sports proved too rich, too engrained to deny. Rather than quit, Hartley chose to channel her grief as a tribute to a 30-year-old brother who graduated from medical school before his death last summer.

“He would have never wanted me to give up,” Hartley said. “My goal this year is to just do my best and give everything I have to do my best and also make sure that I’m happy and I’m enjoying the journey because I know how much my happiness meant to him.”

Despatie, long considered a Beijing medal favourite, has been doing all he can to overcome the training mishap that broke a bone in his right foot. A world champion in all three diving events (one-metre springboard, three-metre springboard and 10-metre tower), Despatie is wearing a removable air-filled cast so he can receive regular ultrasound treatments to speed up the healing process.

He’s also seeing Igor Burdenko, a Russian-born former athlete, coach and trainer who now operates the Burdenko Water and Sports Therapy Institute in Boston. Burdenko’s clients have included former Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale, Olympic figure skating champion Oksana Baiul and U.S. figure skater Nancy Kerrigan after she’d been knee-whacked by an associate of one-time rival Tonya Harding.
Despatie is exercising in the water every day, as per Burdenko’s instructions, and that’s the encouraging news. What’s not so encouraging is Despatie is losing valuable time perfecting the twists and turns of his complex dives.

“I know Kyle’s preparation is going to be like mine - short and sweet,” Despatie said recently.
“The clock is ticking. We both have 3½ months and for neither of us is it ideal preparation for the Olympics. But I think we both have the mindset to be able to perform. All we have to do is, once we get to Beijing, is be physically fit and ready to compete.”

Back in the University of Calgary gym where he trains, Shewfelt brandishes what may be the nastiest looking set of knees known to his sport. A lengthy red scar runs along his right knee with a matching set on his left.
Three times a week, he lies on a massage table and has his legs and knees pinched, pushed and prodded by therapist Ed Louie, who described Shewfelt’s injury as “600 steps back.”
During the early phase of his recovery, Shewfelt spent time “staring at the wall” and replaying the injury his mind - how he caught his heels on the mat through “a millisecond of misjudgment.”

Eventually, he began doing arm and leg exercises to maintain muscle mass. That was the easy part. What wasn’t so simple was rebuilding his confidence so he could be as daring as before.

For advice, he talked to former Canadian alpine skier Brian Stemmle, who endured a near-fatal crash in Kitzbuhel, Austria, in 1989, and Calgary Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr, who had both legs broken in a car accident in the summer of 1999.

"I asked them, ‘How did you get back into the frame of mind to trust yourself again?’ " Shewfelt said.

“It’s all about patience; not jumping from the highest of heights. … [The rehabilitation] has been the most rewarding thing I’ve done. The medal was a culmination of 16 years of hard work. It was the moment. I think we prove our character leading up to those moments.”
As for his Beijing aspirations, Shewfelt has purposely kept them modest. He wants to make the medal podium but, given all he’s been through and must continue to endure, he’s willing to accept whatever his best produces.

“I can’t control the way the judges’ judge, the way the other athletes compete, the way the crowd is. I can only control how I perform. I want to do another perfect routine. That’s my goal.”

As a Ukrainian swim coach at my university always says when he hear’s about stories like this while shaking his head - “It is… Canadian way!”

Yes psychology is important but it rubs me majorly the wrong way when healthy people are so damn quick to say how the injured person SHOULD feel/deal with it :mad:

I have a friend who is always spewing happy juice as I call it and sending me glurge emails. I told him (in a nice way :rolleyes: ), that be better not give me any of that “you’re only as hurt as you think you are” shit while I’m recovering from patella tendon surgery :mad:

Re the quotes in the article, CF has (as usual) already commented on it. In Speed Trap he pointed out that it’s easier to blame the athletes than to provide for recovery, or better yet, provide what they need to not get hurt in the first place.

Now that makes sense. Going to those who have been there makes more sense to me than listening to someone’s theory. I actually told my Hallmark channel crapola-spewing friend, who has been badly hurt (broken back twice :eek: ), that I’m interested in his experience but not the BS.

come on charlie i cant wait to read your response to this news… :smiley:

FMGWAWH. (An expression implying an intimate adventure with a hairstyling implement)
Canada spends far too much time curing people from injuries they shouldn’t have in the first place.
When a drunken coach is seen falling off a bar stool at an international event, should we be surprised if his athlete suffers from a misadventure?
If a coach has screwed up the last minute prep of an athlete once, should we be surprised if he does it again?
(Translation= Send the psychologists after the coaches before, not the athletes after. Better to keep Humpty Dumpty up on the wall in the first place!)