The psychology of injury By Emily Cook
When I was 13, a coach told my father that if I were to continue as a competitive athlete I would,
at some point, endure a season-ending injury. My dad initially brushed the comment aside, but
he couldn’t help but glance around the water ramps at my teammates’ scars. “It looked like a tiny
person had run around with a knife slashing at knees,” he said later, hoping his daughter would not
share their fate.
Though I disagree with that coach’s outlook, there is, of course, inherent risk involved when participating in sport, and his prediction did eventually come true. In 2002, after years of training, I reached
my goal of qualifying for the Salt Lake Olympic Winter Games, only to shatter both of my feet during
training two weeks later. I was devastated, and as I watched the Games from a wheelchair, I vowed
to compete with my teammates four years later in Torino.
Despite my desire to get back to training as soon as possible, I instead spent the next three years
faithful to daily physical therapy. My time away from sport was a rollercoaster of challenges, but I am
certain that it allowed me to grow as an athlete and a person, and helped me to become who I am
During the first year of rehabilitation I enrolled in a sports psychology class at the University of Utah.
On the day my professor, Nicole Miller, Ph.D., presented “Psychology of Injury” I found myself completely fascinated by the similarity between her presentation and what I was experiencing. I hobbled
to the front of the class and asked if she was working with athletes. Coincidentally she had just started
working with the U.S. Ski Team. Perfect. Throughout the next few years Dr. Miller would become a
close friend and would guide me through pain, fear and stress, back to skis and onto a successful
I learned through Dr. Miller’s class that although each person and injury is unique, there is a common
pattern of psychological reaction. This progression begins with a period of information processing,
proceeds to emotional upheaval and reactive behaviors, and finishes with coping and a positive outlook. These stages can include emotions such as depression, anger, identity loss, anxiety, guilt and a
decrease in self-confidence. In the three years of rehabilitating my feet I felt all of these emotions and
many more. I experienced immense physical pain, sadness, anxiety and fear of re-injury. My identity
was so wrapped up in being an athlete that when I lost the ability to jump, I felt I had lost myself, as
well. At first I was confused about why I felt this way, but I eventually learned that my response was
normal and that I simply needed to work through the process of recovering both physically and mentally from this injury.
Throughout those years, Dr. Miller and I worked closely. I learned to control emotions on and off the
hill, developed negative-thought stoppers and positive self-talk techniques, and increased my ability
to decipher between circumstances I could control and those I could not. I learned imagery and used
LISA MARIE MILLER
audio-guided visualization to “train” off the hill. We slowly built back confidence, reduced fear and managed physical pain using techniques such as hypnosis and relaxation. With my coaches, I set long
and short-term goals and spent hours on the hill watching, listening and learning about techniques
I had not yet utilized. But most importantly, I learned how to surround myself with people who supported me and how to adapt my training to fit my body and my mind. I was becoming an independent
and assertive athlete, and learned that every day when I woke up, I had a choice as to who I wanted
to be and what I wanted to do with my life. Throughout this time, I kept a daily journal, recording what
worked and what did not and essentially I re-learned what it would take to be the best. When the time
came for the 2006 Olympic trial, I was ready. Winning that event and representing my country in the
Olympic Winter Games in Torino remains to this day my biggest accomplishment.
Now, many years after injuring my feet I find myself on the sidelines again with a strain of the MCL
ligament and bone bruise in my knee. When faced with this relatively small injury I still feel that emotional pang of uncertainty, but this time I am thankful to have the tools to manage it effectively. With
Dr. Miller’s help, a few necessary reminders and some top-notch physical therapy at the Center of
Excellence, I intend to be back on the hill within a few weeks strong, healthy and ready for our season
opening World Cup in January.