Flipping through bike magazines, most race photographs I see of Katie Compton catch her with a countenance to make you think you were staring at the business end of a gun — serious and steely.
It’s what one would expect from a cyclist with multiple national titles and World Cup wins. (What in France they might call a bahdass.)
But it may not be the image you’d expect from a person whose biking career has been riddled with periods of hopelessness, defeat and wanting to quit because of a yet-to-be diagnosed leg condition she’s had since she was 18.
This is the same leg issue that forced Compton to pull out after one lap of the 2009 Cyclocross World Championships in the Czech Republic this past January where she was in contention for the rainbow jersey. It was, as Compton recalls, “one of my lowest points as a racer.”
Every cyclist can relate to having a setback in his or her training or racing schedule. Work gets busy or you catch a cold and you’re off the bike for a week. It’s frustrating, but you’re soon over it.
But what happens when setbacks go from a few days to a few months or even years due to an injury or an illness? Plans to get physically back in the saddle are a given. But what might not be expected is that there is an emotional side to dealing with injury and illness that will also need attention.
Along with talking to Compton about her experiences, I spoke with Dr. Julie Emmerman, a former professional mountain biker, now psychotherapist, who specializes in working with athletes in sport psychology. In addition to other issues, Emmerman helps both professional and recreational athletes deal with the emotional and mental challenges that often accompany injury and illness in sport.
GAIN AND LOSS
Athletes, Emmerman points out, are often “gain focused.”
“We focus on gaining fitness, power and rankings,” she says. “Experiences of temporary loss through injury or even prolonged illness naturally take people by surprise. These experiences are anxiety-inducing, and often very confusing, especially in complex medical situations.”
Understanding the emotional effects of loss, a cyclist can then be more equipped to cope with a physical setback.
Looking at the Kübler-Ross “Grief Cycle,” which proposes five stages to deal with loss, an athlete can better see the variety of emotions he or she may face. Forms of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are stages an injured cyclist can experience.
Be aware, however, that it may not be obvious to you or others what you are feeling. Indications of depression, for example, can have a wide array of expressions, such as withdrawal, difficulty sleeping, increased alcohol use or loss of motivation or pleasure in activities one used to enjoy.
Asked if she’s ever wanted to quit racing, Compton replied, “Yep, I’ve wanted to quit on numerous occasions and did when I was in college.”
Returning to cycling as a pilot on a tandem bike with a blind partner in the Paralympic Games, however, rekindled Compton’s love of the sport.
“I forgot how much I missed the competition, going fast and turning myself inside out to win,” she said.
Still, to add to any confusion, is that grieving is not a linear process. An injured cyclist may jump right to experiencing anger over a crash that left him injured before sliding back into denying the injury is even serious. This could happen over a few days or a few minutes — something Compton knows all too well.
“I could…do without those feelings of dread, disappointment, anger at my body and increased stress levels whenever I get off a plane, walk down a set of stairs, or hit my quad on my handle bar, which can trigger the pain and my heavy heart that soon follows,” Compton says.
A ticket to an emotional roller coaster often comes free with injury. Knowing this however can be a step toward acceptance and support recovery, which is why Compton just takes it “one day at a time.”
Along with the loss of health, there might be a sense of losing control over one’s life. Instead of training as hard as you’d like, for example, now your injury is calling the shots. Fighting it, in effort to regain control, might just invite further injury and more emotional difficulty.
“Recognizing and then choosing from the parameter of available options helps athletes regain a sense of control and empowers them to move forward with a constructive recovery plan,” Emmerman says.
Another aspect to injury a cyclist may not anticipate is how it will affect relationships. Consider the stress injury can bring, such as financial hardship or inability to meet work or sponsor obligations. And then top it off with the removal of a key stress outlet (i.e. training) and the door opens further to moodiness, which is often directed at those closest to the ailing athlete.
Remember that getting grumpy on your honey may be more about being injured than the bike pump left in the middle of the garage. Although she’s generally a happy person, when leg pain pushes Compton to irritability she accepts it and gives herself some space. Being able to keep perspective can help keep the peace.
Also tied up in an athlete’s pursuits can be part of their identity. Athletes can base a little to a lot of how they see themselves in their activities. Putting the kibosh on training so a person no longer feels like “a cyclist” or decreased performance levels that leave a person feeling like they “suck” are likely signs of a negatively affected self-image.
Even with the mindset that has brought her numerous World Cup wins, Compton says she still wonders at times what it would be like to race with good legs and feel like “a normal person.”
An individual is going to feel what he or she feels, but being able to identify that a negative self-perception may be more the result of an injury can help a person see what that feeling is really about.
Keeping it in balance, Compton says she can see the flipside to her struggle. Having pushed through years of excruciating leg pain, Compton has found new levels to her pain threshold and has learned how to race smarter; all adding to her strengths and confidence as a cyclist.
When the game is 90 percent mental, adversity can bear gifts that “normalcy” may never provide.
Almost by definition, athletes thrive on challenge. Accepting that injury is a natural part of the athletic process can help view a setback as a challenge, which then can help in committing to the recovery process. Rather than feeling fully derailed, an injury can be incorporated as part of the athlete’s journey.
“Bracing against it can limit performance in a variety of ways,” Emmerman says, “while accepting it into the overall picture helps the growth curve maintain forward momentum.”
ALL ABOUT YOU
While typical reactions to grief are well documented, responses can vary individually and even by gender. Though it’d be impossible to describe all the possible responses, an awareness that an injured athlete may need more than PT appointments can help you or an athlete you know. Emotional support from a coach, sport psychologist, friends and/or family members may be integral to recovery.
KATIE COMES BACK
Despite her leg issues, Compton recently placed fourth at the 2010 World Cup cross-country race at Val di Sole, Italy — her highest mountain bike World Cup finish to date. She was also named to the 2010 U.S. cross-country team headed to Quebec for the mountain bike world championships. Ironically, a recently diagnosed thyroid condition brings Compton some hope. It’s possible that her progress in correcting a low thyroid function may help with her legs.
What’s to come for Compton is yet to be seen, but given 14 years of illness and adversity haven’t stopped her from doing what she loves, I expect it won’t be long till I open a page in another bike rag and find Katie Compton staring intently out.
Thank you to Katie Compton for her openness and willingness to share her experiences and to Dr. Julie Emmerman for her expertise and contributions to this post. If you have more questions on the benefits of sport psychology, you can call Dr. Emmerman at 720.839.7350.
Judy Freeman is a pro mountain biker out of Boulder, Colorado. In 2009 she represented the U.S. at the World Championships in Canberra, Australia. For 2010, she’ll be racing for Kenda/Felt Mountain Bike Team. Other sponsors for 2010 include TrailMaster Coaching, Hayes, Manitou, Voler Apparel, Pearl Izumi, WickWerks, KMC, SDG, Crank Brothers, Uvex, Pika Packworks, Smith Optics and Mighty Good Coffee.