Mike's Mailbag: Learning from Injuries


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every Monday I answer questions from swimmers around the country. Please take this advice with a grain of salt, but I have seen many scenarios as an NCAA swimmer, part-time coach, and swim writer. If you have any questions, feel free to email me at swimmingstories@gmail.com, and I’ll try my best to help.

Hi Mike,

I was wondering if you had some advice for how to stay positive while injured. I have been swimming for six years and have had shoulder problems for about three years. I am a college level swimmer now and my shoulder is slowly getting better thanks to my great coach and the trainers we have, but at times I get extremely frustrated. I primarily get frustrated during practice; swim practice is my favorite part of the day, and honestly it is how I stay sane with the stress of school, but having to get out because of shoulder pain is so annoying. I can’t help but get angry at myself/old club coach’s methods of training at times, as the mentality was “no pain no gain” and “just push through it”, which I believe contributed to my injury. I was just wondering if you had any words of wisdom in regards to staying positive through the recovery process, as sometimes it is hard to do.

Thank You,
Injured Athlete
Hey Injured Athlete,

Injuries are the most frustrating thing in sports. They arrive mysteriously and unexpectedly (though sometimes you can look back at your training and say, “Maybe 30x1000s wasn’t the best thing for me…). It’s sort of like driving down the highway on a cross-country road trip then your engine conks out. You’re left on the side of the road wondering, “Why did this happen NOW?”

In a sport like swimming -- where you reap what you sow, where success is largely a derivative of hard work – injuries can be extremely, extremely frustrating. They’re difficult to fix. It’s not a misjudged turn or false start. Swimmers are a breed of people who demand control over situations: Work hard, drop time. Go to practice, get better. Injuries are frustrating because there are no quick fixes.

In high school, I had an injury I never fully recovered from. It was a knee injury. I was a breaststroker. Imagine my frustrations. Kick sets turned into pull sets. Breaststroke sets turned into backstroke sets. To this day, I kick butterfly during breaststroke. It sucks. There’s no other way to describe it. I wish I could tell you I overcame it and the injury went away. It never did. So instead of a breaststroker, I became an IMer. I could train limited breaststroke, enough to compete in the IMs, and things ended up being good. But the injury never really, fully went away.

I tell you this not to discourage you, but to be honest with you: Your shoulder injury might never go away. It might always cause you some pain. It might be as much a part of you as fond memories of a great swim.

And sometimes the injury never really goes away. It sometimes becomes a dull pain, or it returns every third week, re-frustrating you all over again. Injured swimmers become very mentally frustrated when injuries return, because it’s like, “This AGAIN?” Swimmers want the injury to go away and never return. But like a rainy cloud that always comes back, so can injuries. The question is more about attitude, patience, and preparation: What sorts of things can you do when the rain cloud returns? Are you being patient with the injury? Are you allowing it time to heal?

The most important thing when dealing with an injury is allowing it time to heal. It’s hard to step back, but sometimes, stepping back is the best (and only) way to allow the body to heal. Swimmers sometimes want to jump in as soon as they don’t feel pain anymore and return to the grind. I did that, and I constantly re-injured myself. Take my advice: Give your body time to heal. Be patient. Trust your doctors and physical therapists.

The unfortunate thing is injuries are a part of this sport. That’s what happens when you compete as hard as swimmers often do. There are, certainly, things in training you can do to avoid injuries -- stretching, pre-practice arm circles, post-practice ice packs, and changing training routines. I believe many clubs push swimmers too hard too soon, which results in injuries. (Be wary of coaches who believe in the “No pain, no gain” approach, because I’ve seen more injured shoulders from programs like these than anywhere else.)

Don’t pretend the injury will magically go away one day. Realize it might always be part of your swimming. Then include both therapy and maintenance as part of your routine, as much as drinking fluids during practice or analyzing split times. Sure, monitoring an injury is extremely annoying, but injuries will only get better with constant maintenance. You must always be on guard. You must always be cognizant that your shoulder will give you troubles. And being aware of that is a step towards improvement in itself.

Beyond the sheer physicality of injuries, let me share with you one mental trick I learned over the years that has helped me. A long time ago, a swim coach of mine told me this story. I didn’t believe it at first, but he shared it with such passion and honesty, I had no choice but to believe him. Now, I’m a firm believer:

Before you sleep every night, imagine there are tiny little construction workers fixing your shoulder. Imagine them with welding tools and hammers and nails. Imagine them fixing your shoulder, taping and welding and hammering and fixing it all up. Put all your mental focus on these tiny little construction workers fixing your shoulder, and focus on that every night before you sleep. Imagine they continue to fix your shoulder even after you fall asleep and all through the night.

I know this sounds corny.

But once, this same swim coach broke a bone in his body. The broken bone took him out of training for the Olympics. He was devastated. Doctors told him it would take between six to eight weeks to heal, if he fully healed at all. So he began this nightly routine of imagining construction workers “fixing” his broken bone every night.

Less than three weeks later, his bone was completely healed.

Doctors told him they’d never seen anything like it before.

I’ve used this method for not only injuries, but sickness, too. Before the Big Ten Championships, I got the flu. I rested in bed and focused on these little workers eliminating this virus from my body, with hoses and sponges, cleaning out the virus and removing it from my body. It sounds absolutely crazy, but 36 hours later, I was healthy again. I went from a 103 fever to being totally healthy one week before the Big Ten Championships, the last meet of my life.

I believe in the power of the mind. There are mysteries we don’t understand about the mind, but I believe in the power of visualization. While this mental trick might simply be placebo – if you believe it will work, then it works -- I can tell you with 100% honesty, it worked for me.

Beyond mental tricks and visualization, try to keep a positive attitude. I don’t mean smile and laugh, but just don’t despair. Your body responds as much to positive thoughts as it does to negative thoughts. Everything in your body is related to each other. If you walk around the pool deck with your head hung low, thinking about your injury, sulking how you can’t swim or train as hard as you want, your body position will change, your approach to the sport will change, and you may actually be preventing recovery.

You asked for advice how to stay positive, and the only thing I can offer, besides the points above, is this:

When your car breaks down on the highway you have two options: You can scream into the wilderness and kick your car and curse the day you bought it – but none of these things will get you anywhere. But sometimes when your car breaks down, you see things you never thought you’d see: It breaks down near a canyon you never thought you’d hike, or near a forest you never thought you’d explore, or a vast valley you never thought you’d see. Getting injured may prevent you from driving where you wanted to go, but it’s not going to prevent you from learning more about your body, learning more about staying positive in trying circumstances, and learning more about obstacles and how to overcome them.

This is all part of training. This is all part of swimming. You don’t have to laugh and smile about a shoulder injury, because there’s nothing fun about injuries.

But, Injured Swimmer, if you learn something from this, that’s a positive. You learn the most about yourself when dealing with pain. It’s not quite the same as the “no pain, no gain” motto, but you can gain something when dealing with pain and injuries. If you view this as a learning process, one that might take a very long time, you’ll get something out of all this hardship.

Hope this helps, and happy holidays!