sports psychologist & clinical psychology

OLYMPICS RESILIENCE: A WAY WE’LL NEVER BE

Pioneer Press, Deluth News Tribune – Feb 15, 2006 – Bob Shaw – Imagine a fall akin to being pushed from a speeding car onto a snowy highway. Most of us would be terrified. We’re not Lindsey Kildow.

It wasn’t just another wipeout. When Lindsey Kildow crashed while practicing in the Winter Olympics’ fastest event Monday, the world winced at the slow-motion TV images of a skier writhing, arms and legs thrashing as she skidded at 50 mph down a mountainside.
Yet, she may bounce back to ski in the same event today. On the same slope.

How could she do it?

Sports psychologists say the normal rules of motivation and fear don’t apply to Kildow, the Burnsville 21-year-old who is the top-ranked American downhill skier.

Those who know her best, including her father and her former coach, say she will ski today unless her body fails her â€â€? they’re sure she won’t be held back by her mind.

“I hope she will face this with clinical rationality,” said her father, Alan Kildow, himself a former national junior champion skier. “But prudence in downhill skiing is probably an oxymoron.”

Team USA decided late Tuesday to reserve a spot in today’s competition for Kildow. Kildow and officials will decide before the race whether she can compete.

The spectacular wipeout occurred Monday, when Kildow was taking her second training run for the women’s downhill in San Sicario, Italy. Women whip down the two-mile course, which is about as steep as an indoor stairway, hitting top speeds of about 70 mph.

In midrun, Kildow crossed her skis at the top of a jump. She twisted in midair, landed on her back and flailed to a stop in what looked to be a horrific accident-conclusion. She was airlifted to a hospital, where X-rays revealed no broken bones but a severe bruise on her hip.
Her father saw the news of the crash at 6:30 a.m. Monday on an Internet site.

He was concerned but not panicked. “I have seen her take very nasty spills at very high speeds,” Kildow said. “I don’t think this will affect her psychologically.”

Most people, of course, would recoil from an experience akin to being pushed out of a speeding car onto a snow-covered highway, especially if it had happened two days earlier. But most people don’t have the personalities of world-class athletes, experts say.

“Look at Evel Knievel. What made him keep coming back after all those broken bones?” asked Dr. John F. Murray, a nationally known expert in sports psychology in Palm Beach, Fla.

“It’s called resilience. We are defined by what we do when things go wrong, not what happens when things go right.”

Erich Sailer agreed. “It has to come from within yourself,” said Sailer, who coached Lindsey Kildow at Buck Hill ski area in Burnsville and is a member of the National Skiing Hall of Fame.

He said a coach can improve most athletes’ performances, but not to the Olympic level. Olympic athletes have the physical abilities and, more important, the desire to excel that can’t be taught.

Olympic athletes see pain differently. “The worst thing we can do is try to put ourselves in their heads. These are not average Joes,” said Greg Cylkowski, who helps improve athletes’ performance at Athletic Achievements in St. Paul.

Olympians live for thrills most of us will never experience, he said.
“It might seem amazing to us that she’d come back to try this again,” Cylkowski said. “But it’s amazing to people like her how you and I can live with consistent routines every day.”

Athletes like Kildow can concentrate on the task â€â€? to the exclusion of fear and other distractions. “They live on the edge. You lose that edge, and you become just another fast skier,” Cylkowski said.

Many athletes, from mountain climbers to auto racers, know fatal mistakes can happen instantly � and adjust their attitudes accordingly.
“When she gets to that starting gate, she has to start from scratch, mentally,” said Mike Dahlberg of Minneapolis, who has 35 years’ experience climbing mountains.

Dahlberg said the ability to deliberately avoid thinking about danger is common to almost everyone, to some degree. “We have to commute, but how often do you see a horrific crash on the interstate? When you witness that, it shakes you up for a day or two, but you still go on,” he said.

“You have to tell yourself: If it was legitimate to do this yesterday, then it’s legitimate to do it today â€â€? regardless of any injuries,” Dahlberg said.

Athletes notoriously avoid visiting their injured colleagues because it reminds them of their own vulnerability, Cylkowski said.

It’s like soldiers facing death in Iraq, Cylkowski said. “You might think, ‘What possesses a guy to volunteer for that?’ ” Soldiers, like athletes, have learned to put other considerations before personal danger.

“They know about death. They just think it isn’t going to happen to them,” he said.

Of course, athletes are well aware of the glory of winning an Olympic event.

“This is their moment to climb Mount Everest. I wouldn’t call it ‘reckless abandon,’ but sometimes there is a disregard for their future,” Cylkowski said.

Said Murray: “I applaud her for it. She is not letting this one fall destroy her dream. She might be able to compete in one Olympics, or two â€â€? then the chance is gone.”

Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.

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