Coping with Injury – Leon Taylor
In May of 2008 just months before the Beijing Olympic trials, the medical team at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, who had been working with me for many years, gave me some feedback: “Leon if you were a horse, we would probably have to shoot you!“
As an athlete involved in any sport, injuries are commonplace – It’s how you choose to deal with them that’s most important. This choice makes all the difference in how you cope and often how (and if) you make it back. I had many injuries during my 22-year career, ranging from minor niggles to major ones. Hitting the water at 40mph from a 10m diving board and training all the hours certainly took its to toll mentally and physically.
Early in my career, to get the judge’s attention and change the perception of British diving I set myself the challenge of inventing the worlds most difficult dive. I had it planned out in my head, I’d visualised what it was going to be like and I’d diligently broken the dive down into its parts and practiced them all. So imagine my surprise the first time I attempted it I hit the water at a strange angle and almost left my right arm behind.
From that day forward my shoulder was knackered. It scrunched, scraped and there was a shooting pain every time I moved it. I was determined and bloody minded enough to carry on and keep ‘toughing it out’ for almost three years, before deciding that enough was enough and maybe it was about time I stopped being so tough!
I needed reconstructive shoulder surgery on my right shoulder. The doctors suggested that I had a 40% chance of making it back to my current level of diving. I would be in rehabilitation for 6 months and in a sling 24 hours per day for the first 4 weeks!
I faced the biggest challenge of my life. Six months of rehab to make it back into the pool and start low level diving again, with no guarantees that I would make it at all. It was as if I’d lost everything that I’d worked so hard to achieve and if I was going to get it back I needed to let go of where I was (GB number one) and start from where I now found myself (in a sling unable to move my arm).
In order to get back into the pool I had to follow a new plan, forgetting about the 2001 World Championships and setting specific goals to eventually get me back into the pool. Small steps.
It was the toughest journey of my life, I visited some dark places along the way, and after a long 6 months rehab I made it back into the pool and begun low level diving.
On reflection the key learning during this time was: Concentrate on what you can do and not what you can’t do. Spend time/energy thinking of or getting frustrated by the long list of all the things you can’t do at this time (eg lift weights, compete, etc) is a sure fire way of causing psychological turmoil to go along with your physical injury. I needed constant reminders from those around me in order to stay within this frame. As I found myself getting increasingly wound up by my own thought processes.
Back in pool, yet something wasn’t quite right; my shoulder was better but not fixed. There was still a scrunching feeling and as a result it couldn’t quite do what I needed it to do, my progress in the pool started to grind to a halt. So off I went back to see the specialists to get some reassurance.
Instead I was told that unfortunately for me the first surgical intervention hadn’t worked as well as they had hoped to would. I needed a 2nd shoulder surgery! It was bad enough the first time when I had time to recover, but now it was November 2001, I was back under the surgeon’s knife for another operation and time was running out for me to get back.
If I didn’t compete for GB that coming competitive season (only a few months away) then my funding would be stopped and I would be off the team, the pressure was really on.
So I threw everything and the kitchen sink at my recovery and mission to get back to international competition standard, set tougher goals, made even more sacrifices and became completely obsessive in my behaviour. I was focused, determined and tenacious I was using all the behaviours that got me to the top, so why was nothing working? Why was everything going wrong? Why did I hate my life? Why was this happening to me?
I was in a really bad place to put it mildly. I felt like I was at the bottom of a muddy ditch and all I needed to do was get out. But every time I would scramble up the bank and almost get to the top, digging my fingers in, I would slip all the way back down.
Something was missing.
I was Seville, Spain competing for GB at the world diving cup, I’d just about scraped into the team, it was 7 months since shoulder operation number 2 and I had just put in a poor performance. Everything had reached breaking point and I was on the poolside in tears; I had no idea what to do. This is when my mentor came quietly over and rather than trying to fix the problem or give me advice, he placed his hand on my shoulder and asked me a question “Why do you do this sport Leon?”
So I blurted out a reply “Because I enjoy it”
“So why haven’t I seen you smile for six months?” That was the ah-ha moment, the moment that the penny dropped, like a clash of thunder right in between my ears. Of course, that was it, what had been missing, the real reason why I chose to do this sport, and the reason I had been doing it every day since I was 8 years old; because I enjoyed it.
Enjoyment, for me, is the key ingredient to success. No wonder I was stuck at the bottom of that that ditch and nothing was working, I was trying to perform at the highest level without my biggest emotive driver.
I returned home to the UK and went to my first training session putting on a big fat smile of my face. By the end of the session it wasn’t so much of an effort to hold the smile and by the end of the week my smile was 100% genuine. The negative spiral I had caught myself in had reversed into a positive spiral. I was finally out of the ditch. It’s amazing how quickly things can turn around; if you change your physiology you change the thought patterns in your brain.
Only 5 weeks later I was back at the top of my game and won a silver medal at the Commonwealth games in Manchester in one of the closest and most exciting competitions in the history of diving. Having 2000+ people stamping their feet, clapping their hands and chanting your name before you dive is a truly unbelievable experience and was a long way from standing on that poolside in tears just five weeks earlier.
Two years later and after winning a sliver at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, I set my goals for Beijing. In Jan 2005, on my way to training I was ran off the road by a truck and taken off to hospital on a spinal board luckily I was OK (ish) and the board was just a precaution. My right shoulder however was yanked by the seatbelt and I was in pain.
Surgery number 3 followed on new years eve of 2005 after a full year of non-surgical rehab and too many steroid injections. I rehabbed slightly too quickly to make the 2006 Commonwealth Games team, at which I unable to compete due to my shoulder becoming unstable and very painful once again.
Surgery number 4 followed in June 2006. This time I pulled together everything I had learned from the previous three rehabs: Concentrated on can do not can’t., taking small steps. I went back to university to study a HNC in Business and finance, stretching myself out of my comfort zone and address the balance that is inevitably shifted when you can’t train especially if you are a full time athlete. By having something challenging to take my focus the rehab was much smoother. I took my time, smiled often; reminding myself of the reasons I chose to do my sport. Balanced my scorecard, spent time with friends and finally got it right!
So how can you use this if you are injured?
Control the controllable. Follow the process steps concentrate on can do at a given time and refuse to be distracted by what you can’t do yet.
Reset your goals and take time. Elicit the support of those around you to keep you from going crazy. This could be friends, family, teammates or someone completely different – make sure you have someone to turn to though.
Balance: Make time for the other things: studying, yoga, meditation, go for a walk, cinema or what ever it is you need to do to redress the balance. Find something that challenges you ideally so it acts as a good distraction from the frustration of injury.
Choose your attitude, smile and change your physiology. This makes the biggest difference in any giving moment.
Being injured is one of the toughest things you have to deal with as an athlete. You certainly wouldn’t choose it to happen but you can always choose your attitude towards it. Choose wisely.
Posted on 06/12/2015
by Sara Heath