At elite level, the evolution of sport science means that preparation for competition has never been more detailed or meticulous. However, despite the advances, injuries will always remain a fact of life for an elite athlete.
Some of our members will have had their Tokyo dreams destroyed by injury; some will be using the next few weeks to test how their recovery from injury can withstand the rigours of the Games; and some will face a race against time to be fit for Beijing 2022.
Athens Olympic silver medallist Leon Taylor missed important competitions and faced long spells on the sidelines during his distinguished diving career, and here gives us the benefit of his experience of coping with injury setbacks.
“For athletes, injuries are commonplace – but it’s how you choose to deal with them that’s important. This choice makes all the difference in how you cope, and often how you make it back.
“I had many injuries during my 22-year career, ranging from minor niggles to major ones. Hitting the water at approaching 40mph from a 10m board and training all the hours certainly takes its toll, mentally and physically.
“Early in my career, I set myself the challenge of inventing the world’s most difficult dive. I had planned it out, visualised it and diligently practiced each element of the dive, but 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. After trying to ‘tough it out’ for three years, I had reconstructive surgery, after which the doctors suggested I had a 40% chance of making it back to my previous level.
“The rehabilitation was the toughest journey of my life, and I visited some dark places along the way. On reflection, the key learning from this time was to concentrate on what you can do, and not on what you can’t do.
“Expending time or energy thinking about the long list of things you can’t do is a surefire way of causing psychological turmoil to go with the physical injury. I needed constant reminders of this from those around me, as I found myself getting increasingly wound-up by my own thought process.
“When I got back in the pool, something still wasn’t quite right – my shoulder was better, but not fixed. I went to see the specialists to get some reassurance, but instead I was told that the first surgery hadn’t worked, and I’d have to go under the knife for a second time.
“It was bad enough the first time, but now I felt that time was running out for me to get back. Without competing, I would be off the team and lose my funding, so I threw everything and the kitchen sink into my recovery – setting tougher goals, making even more sacrifices and becoming completely obsessive in my behaviour.
“To put it mildly, I was in a really bad place. 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.
“I was in Seville, competing at the World Cup, and I’d put in a poor performance after just about scraping onto the team. Everything had reached breaking point, and I was sat on the poolside in tears. I had no idea what to do.
“My mentor came quietly over, and rather than try to fix the problem, he placed his hand on my shoulder and asked, ‘why do you do this sport, Leon?’
“I blurted out, ‘because I enjoy it’.
“He replied: ‘so why I haven’t I seen you smile for six months?’
“That was the a-ha moment, when the penny dropped. That was it – enjoyment, for me, is the key ingredient to success. No wonder I was stuck at the bottom of that ditch and nothing was working – I was trying to perform at a high level without my biggest emotive driver.
“When I returned home and went to my first training session, I put a big smile on my face. By the end of the session, holding that smile wasn’t so much of an effort, and by the end of the week the 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.
“Only five weeks later I was back at the top of my game, winning silver at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Having over 2,000 people chanting your name before a dive is a truly unbelievable feeling, and a stark contrast from being on that poolside in tears just weeks earlier.
“After winning silver at the Athens Olympics, I set my goals for Beijing. However, after being run off the road by a truck in early 2005, surgery number three on my shoulder soon followed.
“This time, I rehabbed slightly too quickly to try to make the Commonwealth Games team in 2006. Operation number four followed, and this time, I pulled together everything I had learned from the previous three rehabs.
“I concentrated on what I could do. I took small steps. I went back to university, taking myself out of my comfort zone and addressing the balance that is inevitably shifted when you can’t train. By having something challenging to take my focus, the rehab was much smoother – I took my time, I smiled often, I reminded myself of the reasons I chose to do my sport…and I finally got it right!
“So, what should you do if you are injured?
“Being injured is one of the toughest things you have to deal with as an athlete. You certainly wouldn’t choose for it to happen, but you can choose your attitude towards it. Choose wisely.”
If you require support on any issue over the coming months, email firstname.lastname@example.org.