Matters of the Mind: Olympian insight on defeating mental hazards
By Greg Bach
One of Olympic speed skater Allison Baver’s first races on the ice as a teen new to the sport resembled a scene from a Friday the 13th movie: blood and bodies everywhere.
But that nightmarish afternoon didn’t sabotage her love for the sport.
Or derail an incredible journey that would later feature an Olympic medal and a dazzling number of American records.
But it took off-the-charts skill, passion, a tireless work ethic – and a sturdy and creative mindset – to make happen.
And her story serves as a wonderful example for young athletes today in all sports that the mind can be a powerful tool when returning from an injury or sweeping an unpleasant experience to the curb.
BLOODIED IN BALTIMORE
On this day, Baver had traveled 90 minutes from her home in Pennsylvania to Baltimore because that’s where the nearest open ice rink happened to be that day. “A lot of times our drive would be longer than the amount of time we had for practice,” she says. “Ice time was like gold.”
While leading a race, her legs churning as fast as possible, she fell. And the boy behind her attempted to jump over her, a big no-no in speedskating.
“It’s not advised for you to jump over people with blades on your feet,” Baver says. “As I later learned when you fall, you keep your blades as close to the ice as you can.”
His blade knocked her helmet back and sliced into her head.
“It cut literally from my hairline all the way down to my eyebrow,” she says. “And then right underneath my eye it started again and went all the way down my cheek. Had it been a few centimeters lower it could have gouged my eye out. Immediately there was blood everywhere. It was all over me and it was all over the ice.”
Her dad was in the stands and got her to the hospital.
“The next day I went to cheerleading practice and everyone was asking what happened to my face,” she says. “I looked like Frankenstein. I had the sutures and those butterfly stitches all over my face.”
FACING – AND CONQUERING - FEARS
Injuries are a part of sports; there’s no way around that. Youngsters are going to sustain them. Some will be minor, and others will, like Baver’s, be more serious.
And returning from injuries that have kept kids on the sidelines for any period of time requires dealing with all sorts of mental roadblocks.
When kids aren’t equipped to deal with the emotional baggage that accompanies a serious injury, chances are they won’t stick around in the sport for long. So it’s imperative that parents and coaches work with them, talk to them, and ease them back into the action.
Baver’s life could have taken a lot of different turns after that accident. An active child, she could have easily put the skates away and spent more time with other sports she participated in growing up, like gymnastics, dancing, track and field, soccer or field hockey.
But a conversation with her dad helped put her injury into perspective.
“He basically said there is risk in life even without skating so if I loved it I might as well just go for it,” Baver says. “So I did. I was back on the ice in two weeks and my parents bought me my own blades that year for Christmas and sharpening equipment and all that good stuff.”
BROKEN LEG, UNSTOPPABLE DREAM
A year before the 2010 Olympic Games, Baver broke her leg in a collision with another racer during the World Cup final.
So once again she faced a hefty challenge. And she was able to regroup, recover and return to racing in time for the Olympics.
And make that coveted podium.
“I’ve kind of had to go into it with a really fearless approach,” she says. “You have to be able to pour your heart into it and push yourself without holding yourself back and the only way to do that is to push aside that emotional connection to those bad memories.”
It's a fascinating approach, taking a negative or traumatic event and re-working the ending in your mind so you’re free of the clutter.
And ready to compete with confidence.
“I had to take myself in my visualization through that crash and that race and changing the outcome,” she says. “It’s almost like your blueprint is being changed in a way where you have to re-program your brain and re-program your thought pattern of what happened.”
The results speak for themselves: a three-time Olympian; a bronze medal; multiple records; and a distinguished career as one of the sport’s preeminent short track skaters.
“You have to say to yourself, ‘I’m not going to hold myself back,’” she says.
Sounds like pretty good advice for young athletes of all sports.
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