"Don't go to the doctor!" But the shoulder pain has become unbearable. "Just don't go to the doctor!" my skating coach insisted again. I always know he has my best interests in mind.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because he will just tell you to stop skating."
"Well what if he's right? I have to feel better. It's just too much now."
"He's not right. Pain is just part of life now. You are older, you will have pain. You can still skate."
Whoa, he played the age card. No fair. Still, I know I have endured numerous minor aches and pains regularly for years, figuring they will likely be with me for the remainder of my "older" adult life. But this pain has become unbearable. It wakes me in the middle of the night, begging for attention. I have invented a hundred "workarounds" to help me dress, open the car door, put my hair up, even hug my kids without pain.
I decided to ignore my coach's pleas, and made an appointment with renowned shoulder expert, Dr. B. After a series of x-rays and an office visit filled with excruciating movement study ("do you have pain when I do this?"), my diagnosis was shoulder impingement and rotator cuff tendonitis. Basically a ton of inflammation and parts rubbing rudely against other parts that have no business being rubbed. His prescription for now is anti-inflammatories and some physical therapy. Day 2 and so far not much has changed, pain-wise. I will start the physical therapy on Monday, which will be Day 6, so hopefully the meds will enable me to do some exercises with much less pain.
OK so that is the back story. Now for the lesson. It's a lesson for me. It's my job, my passion, to help injured athletes successfully navigate the sport injury rehabilitation process and come out confident and ready to return to play. All the knowledge in the world does not compare to knowledge plus experience. I am ready to experience, ready to practice what I so fervently preach. Thought I would share with you as I go.
It's not going to be easy, as you can see from my coach's reaction. In the past, I have had sports injuries. Of course I have. Any athlete can point to any number of dings, sprains or breaks they have had. When training for the Marine Corps Marathon one year, my spirit was willing, but my achilles was weak. Had I continued to train it would surely have ruptured. I endured rehab and came back, though I did miss the marathon. Poor timing. So I have past experience to tell me that I will get through this, I will return. At that time, however, I did not yet know about the mental tools I could have used to help me. I struggled instead of taking control and thus did not fully regain confidence in my ability to run long distance.
Another difference between then and now was that I was an individual, training on my own and not with a coach or team. I did not need to please anyone with my progress but myself. There was no timetable beyond my control for my return. Now, I have a coach. And the pressure he exerts is far more than I imagined it would be. It's not like I am training for the Olympics, but I must say I have made significant progress in my skating this year, and who knows what the future holds. To my coach, though, Olympian or not, train through the pain is the mantra.
Granted, Dr. B did not specifically say "don't skate." He did say quite obviously, "If something you're doing when you skate causes pain, it might be a good idea not to do it for a few weeks to let the medication and therapy do their job."
Like many of my clients who hear these words or face the cessation, albeit temporary, of a loved activity so integrated with life, I immediately began to figure a workaround. I can still skate, sure, but I just won't use that arm. Sure, that will affect my balance, my ability to use my shoulders to guide my turns and edges. But is that so bad?
Practice what I preach. I need to do this right, if for no other reason than to prove to my clients I get it. And that the tools we use during their rehab do indeed work. So here I go.
Even though my injury was not due to a trauma but was gradual in onset, there still came the moment when I knew enough was enough. Yet I was still unprepared to consider taking a break from skating. I did not understand exactly what was happening to my shoulder. There was a feeling that my shoulder was betraying me. As athletes we are very in tune with our bodies. We know how they move, know how to direct them to perform. We know what feels right and what feels wrong. We have the sense that we are in control of our bodies. So when an injury occurs, we may feel we are losing control over our bodies. So first things first, I set out to understand from Dr. B what exactly was happening without me. He is an amazing doctor, very patient and knowledgeable. He showed me a model of a shoulder, demonstrated over and over what was going on in my shoulder, and what needs to happen in order for the pain to go away. I plan to take this information into the next phase, when imagery will really come in handy.
I'm sure everyone has been wondering, "How is Christie's skating coming along?" I mean, it's been 2+ years of lessons now (one 30-minute lesson per week--summers off--and three 90 minute skating sessions per week--again, summers off). So it's time for a check-in to see all the amazing progress.
I have been applying principles of sport psychology, using my mental tools to help me learn and develop skills, mentally rehearse and perform with confidence. One tool I had purposely neglected to use--and I had my own good reasons--was videotaping my practices.
While videotaping practices and performances has a number of very positive uses for athletes, for me, the idea of possibly seeing that the reality didn't match the beautiful fantasy in my mind, was a slope as slippery as the ice I magically sail upon.
Content to use observation of other skaters and my coach as my examples of proper execution, my visualization practice involved seeing myself and my skating from a first-person point of view. I would see the ice, the rink, my skates, from an internal perspective, not third-person the way I actually appear to others.
In my images, I perform the skills just as I've seen others perform them. This has been effective in learning the basics, improving my confidence on the ice, and helping the movements to flow a little better. Eager to share my incredible accomplishments, I invited my husband and kids to the rink so they could be blown away by my progress. My husband brought out the video camera, and for once I was OK with it.
When I finally watched the video, however, I realized the person on it was not exactly me, or the me I'd imagined in my head. There was definitely vast improvement but I could pick out a lot of things I was not doing well, to put it kindly. The confidence I felt on the inside when on the ice did not show on the video.
At first I was devastated by the disconnect and wanted to just throw in the towel. After all, this is just a hobby. But the competitive side of me--and the sport psychologist--searched for the silver lining. I have reached a point in my training where I can stay stagnant or make a great leap forward. It's up to me.
I can now integrate video into my active toolkit and make it work for me at a level it could not have when I was a mere beginner. The key for me is to watch with ego firmly detached, and observe from a perspective of learning, tweaking, perfecting. Rather than blissfully practice skills "slightly wrong," when I'm on the ice, I will focus on the aspects of each move and how to perform them perfectly.
Practice makes perfect? Only if it is perfect practice. It will require taking a few steps back in order to bound ahead.
I actually look forward to getting back out there and practicing with renewed focus. I look forward to my next video, too. Never thought I'd say that.
This week I wrote an article for coaches on this site about feedback. It addresses the basics, how to give feedback, how much to give, when to give it, how often. As I was writing I reflected upon my own experience with my figure skating coach, Pavel.
I know I've written about him before, and his role in my saga from scared-to-death-of-ice to pretty decent skater with a dream or two. He is old school Eastern European, meaning compliments and encouraging words are few and far between. At times it is frustrating, because I wonder why I am paying him when he doesn't say too much. But actually, I know now I am paying him for one big reason--he's good. Really good.
Whether he realizes it or not, his style of providing feedback is right in line with the research which says "less is more." He has an allowable "bandwidth" of movements within which I can perform. If I stray, he is on me immediately to correct what I have done. As I have improved, the bandwidth has narrowed. He allows fewer deviations from proper form than he did when I started. For example, when I was just starting, the focus was on balance and gliding. It didn't matter quite as much at that time whether my knees were bent as much as they should have been, only that they were not perfectly straight. My arms could be out to the side, not necessarily at the perfect angle, but mainly to help me learn how they could help me maintain balance and direction. Now, however, I have noticed that if my knees are not bent enough, I am corrected quickly. He has given me more specific detail about where my arms should be, which way I should be looking, keeping my shoulders square to the short wall. With each new skill, the bandwidth for that movement is widened at first, then narrowed appropriately.
I complained to him once that he wasn't giving me enough detail about how to perform a movement, what I should be feeling, which muscles to tighten or relax. I am a "thinking person" and like to have as much detail as possible. He is opposed to thinking while skating, but will indulge me if I ask. That is the key. He is holding out, waiting for me to internalize the movement, to get the feel of it myself, to experiment, adjust, and finally learn how to do it all on my own. He notices the adjustments I am making. If he doesn't see any improvement, he will offer suggestions. But mostly, he waits until I ask, which is usually when I haven't been able to figure it out by myself. The learning taking place internally for me, is vital to my success in skating.
So the other day at my lesson I mentioned to him how good he is, how his style matches what research suggests brings the most success. He smiled sheepishly and said, "I know this already." Well, he certainly knows it is reflected in his pairs skating team, who recently qualified for Sochi to compete for Estonia! His lessons with me, I'm sure, bring him back down to Earth and check any ego fluctuations.
How many of us "know this already" about how to get the most out of our performance? When I talk with people about what I do as a sport psychology consultant, I get a lot of comments such as, "Right! That makes so much sense!" It should. It is, as my mentor from Penn State, Dr. David Collins, used to say, "Common sense not commonly applied." I help people discover what they already have at their disposal, their brilliant and strong minds, and offer ways they can apply mental skills to improve physical performance.
We are constantly adjusting to one another, Pavel and I. He gives me a few more "very goods" to keep me happy, and I ask more pointed questions when I need them but not all the time. I am learning, internalizing, and that is the point. Pavel offers a successful learning environment. I apply the mental skills I have learned over the years, and it really helps me improve day to day.
Oh, and I have fun, too.
I am no longer a beginner figure skater. This is my favorite thing to say since about three weeks ago when my coach "tested" me on my basic skills and declared I had received a passing grade. It's a really big deal for me because I am new to figure skating itself, not just to lessons. And because up until a little over a year ago, I was deathly afraid of the ice and everything about it. Cold, hard, slippery, unforgiving--what's to like? But when my young son declared he wanted to be a hockey player and take lessons, I pulled out the mom martyr card and decided to make the big sacrifice. I would learn to skate too, so I could help him achieve his Alexander Ovechkin board-crashing celebration dreams.
I tried on my own at first, and thought I was making great strides. I was falling much less frequently--bonus! I befriended a woman who was much more advanced than I, and who kindly took me under her wing. She very directly declared I was not doing very well, and should take lessons from a coach like she was doing. I appreciated the honesty and got a coach. He and his coaching partner have been skater and coach, respectively, at the Olympic level. Naturally, I was a bit intimidated at my first lesson!
Fast forward to today, and now my coach (I switched coaches to the partner back in September) actually says I'm doing "very well" once in a while. (He is not one to give positive feedback unless it is earned. I guess you could say he is the Simon Cowell of the rink. I do appreciate that, actually!) How I got from Day 1 to today was a study itself in sport psychology, and an inspiration for me to go "official" so I could help others achieve the same success.
My main tool of choice was, and continues to be, mental practice. After learning the physical requirements of a movement at the rink, and practicing it (usually badly, with less than stellar results at first), I go home and relax and practice it all in my head. I try to experience as many senses as I can, recalling the feel of my muscles during the move, the placement of my skates and my arms. Even just imagining these, I can sense my muscles actually tensing, receiving the message my brain is "sending," but without the order to actually move. In my mind, I am always successful with the movement. Over and over, getting it perfect each time.
By the time I get back to the rink, my mind feels a sense of confidence, that I have already mastered the new moves (albeit in my mind). My body responds as if it had all been in "real life." While not perfect, there can be huge improvement even the next day. And I don't have the fear and trepidation I had upon first learning the skill.
I have set goals for myself, continue to use mental practice, and have such a blast at the rink! Look out Disney Princesses on Ice, here I come!
"Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there."
Personal Best Sports
The sports world is filled with stories of perseverance, failure and success, personal struggles and public triumph. Each story provides insight into the mental side of sport and activity.