Recovery: The Mental beyond the Physical

Physical Therapy is the most common form of physical comeback

When people think of recovering from an injury they usually tend to think of the physical comeback. You can never fully recover from an injury if you do not spend time mentally repairing yourself. Dame Kelly Holmes was an Olympic runner who had to push herself through injury after injury to achieve her dreams.

“Holmes had a tough athletics career. Injury, operations, disappointments all took their toll and, at odds with her bubbly, friendly, smiling, outward character, depression swamped her” (Express. UK).

It is not rare to find mental disorders linked with the success of an Olympic athlete’s career. Being an Olympic athlete requires a lifetime of sacrifices, dedication, and a lot of strength. There have been cases where athletes get injured and become so depressed they cannot function and completely throw their career away. For many high level athletes their sport is their life; they train hours and hours a day, every single day. There are two options when recovering from an injury, but only one will allow to fully recover. You can let it win and never recover or you can conquer it and come back stronger than ever. Professional athletes give up so many things to dedicate themselves one hundred percent to their sport and the next thing they know, it could all be taken away; It is in their path of mental repair that determines how they will overcome it.

Double Olympic Champion Dame Kelly Holmes experienced the heartache of injuries more often than most. As a professional runner she seemed to find herself injured before many very important competitions. Because of all the stress and emotions that overcome an athlete during these large competitions she found herself being able to push through most of them, but once the competition was over she would have to take care of each one. Holmes explains how she suffered from depression because she would experience little nagging injuries and tell herself she needed a few more weeks to recover. Those weeks would pass and she would feel a little better. Next thing a few months go by and she was ready to run faster than ever; until another injury hit her. It was a never ending cycle of constant injuries and disappointment.

Being diagnosed with clinical depression in 2003, Holmes came back to compete in 2004, first time without injury, and came out with a gold medal
“She had been diagnosed with clinical depression after once locking herself in a bathroom and cutting her left arm with a scissors blade, one cut for everyday she had been injured. She sought help and sorted her life again. To know you can be a winner but to keep getting hammered by injuries, well it is enough to get anyone down so actually my journey was a roller-coaster of emotion, both psychologically and physiologically” (Independent).

Because she suffered through so many injuries that led to her retirement, she found herself continuously thinking of what she could have achieved if these injuries never occurred. The constant negative attitude drove her into a depression which is very common in sports injuries. In 2000, Dr. Gerald Kaforey told the New York Times that one out of every four or five injured athletes that go to his center suffer from depression. Because she never repaired herself mentally from these injuries, the built up disappointment and stress caused her to never get out of a negative state of mind. If she had accepted her fate and understood that everything that happened to her was something she couldn’t control, she would have a better chance at a positive life and a positive recovery. Committing your life to a sport and having it taken away from you in one instant is very hard to wrap your mind around. It is even worse when an injury forces you into retirement. Dame told Express,

“Being a double Olympic champion didn’t take it away. After retiring I was like any other athlete. You get to a point where you are lost, you lose your identity, you don’t really know who you are any more, what you are doing” (Express).

Although she was a double Olympic champion, life after the sport was too difficult. She felt so lost and struggled with depression and anxiety every day. Because of the lack of motivation once she retired from the sport, she spent months trying to find herself. Through the time she spent trying to find herself she came to terms with her retirement and after all those years finally allowed herself to be mentally repaired. Holmes found herself starting a charity using athletes to help young people lead a better life. She repaired herself through this charity, but she had to overcome many obstacles to get her mind in the right place.

Tara Rosenberg competing for her club gymnastics team prior to her George Washington team debut

You see this mental effect on high scale athletes such as Olympians, but it also effects Division 1 college athletes. My high school gymnastics coach, Tara Rosenberg, spent her life doing gymnastics. Gymnastics is a very risky sport where injuries are way too prevalent. Having spent her whole life training, the disappointment started when she didn’t get a full athletic scholarship to the school of her dreams: George Washington University. Despite that disappointment, she was admitted to the school and joined the team as a walk on athlete. Being one of the few girls without a full scholarship, she already felt the pressure to keep up with these girls. A bad relationship with her coach also made her feel out of place. Tara Rosenberg was the name all of New Jersey knew when it came to high school gymnastics. She was the state champion and the star of the show. Tara had to leave all of that attention behind to become the underdog of a division 1 team. Trying so hard to prove herself, she pushed herself past her limits every day. Unfortunately, one day her body decided to fight back; she was completing a routine dismount off the uneven bars that she had done time and time again. For some reason, this time, something went wrong. As soon as she landed she felt her world turn upside down. Upon hitting the ground, she knew sometime was seriously wrong. She sat on the ground in excruciating pain; this pain wasn’t all physical. She was emotionally devastated. Whether she needed surgery or even just a few weeks of recovery, her season was seriously derailed. Finding out the following day that she seriously tore her ACL, she knew what that meant. She was done for the season and maybe for life. A world wind of emotions flowed through her body; how was she going to live her life without gymnastics? Her surgery went and past and in time she started physical therapy. Tara had seen these types of injuries before and knew she had two choices: stay negative and give up or think positive and fully recover. She decided she was going to come back and recover in time to prove to her coach that she was stronger than anyone thought. Pushing herself through physical therapy she realized she was so busy feeling bad for herself before, that she wasn’t properly healing mentally. If she was going to come back from this serious injury in time for the next season, she needed to toughen up mentally and stop feeling bad for herself. After talking to a few sports psychologists she found her own way of accepting that injury comes with the sport and that it’s just a test to see how bad she really wanted it. She recited the quote that changed her recovery, “Keep your head up. God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers.” Reciting this to herself every day is what pushed her to make a full recovery in time for the next season. Unlike Dame Kelly Holmes, Tara accepted her injury and allowed the mental repair to happen before the physical. Since she mentally repaired herself in time, she allowed herself a positive physical recovery. Without the mental repair, she would have never been able to experience such a positive recovery and have a new outlook on the sport and her own life. Bringing herself back up from such a bad injury is her greatest accomplishment so far. While she couldn’t nearly get back to the level she was at before her injury she was content with the progress she made. It forever changed her life.

Olympic Gymnast Shawn Johnson talks about the difficulty of gymnastics and the strength it takes to push yourself through the worst times.

Deciding whether you are going to let an injury decide your fate is the key to recovering. There are two complete opposite ways of dealing with an injury. You can take Dame Kelly Holmes’ route or Tara Rosenberg’s route. Holmes watched as she allowed injury after injury to beat her down until she couldn’t fight back anymore. Allowing this injury to win led Holmes into a depression. Injuries leading to depression is very common in athletes because their sport is all they know. Many athletes just give up when they are injured rather than trying to fight back and make a full recovery; they take the easier route. Sometimes this easier route emotionally destroys them, but the harder route makes them stronger than they ever thought possible. Tara took the hard route. She decided that she wanted to make a full recovery to prove to everyone she was still in the game; her own mental repair was key in being able to do so. Realizing that she had to stop feeling bad for herself and she needed to push herself to new limits, she made up her mind; she was coming back.

It is interesting to see the difference between two amazing athletes and their individual take on recovery. One athlete was willing to fight for it, while the other athlete just threw in the towel. Looking at Spelman’s book Repair, human’s need their own individual plan of repair. Like Willie, Louise, and Fred, every repairer has a different idea of how to repair a specific item or person. These two athletes could not have been treated the same. Being in two different mind sets, the extra push that Tara needed would have continued to push Holmes into a deeper depression.

“We know that the protocols Willie follows in his repair work would destroy Fred’s rebuilding projects, ruin Elisabeth, Louise, and Irene’s heroic restorations. We know there is not a single all-purpose repair shop, that the Willies and Freds and Irenes and Elisabeths and Louises of the world have the different work they do because we have devised a wide range of campaigns to confront the brute facts of the impermanence, imperfection, and fragility of the objects with which we cohabit the world” (Spelman 22–23).
Tara Rosenberg (left) chose to comeback stronger than ever while Dame Kelly Holmes (right) let the mental stress get the best of her.

Spelman understands that each individual doctor or patient has a different way of going about recovery; that is why there are so many different methods. Every athlete and every injury needs to be approached differently in order to make sure they fully recover. Tara shows how an athlete can be motivated to recover and mentally accepted her injury and was positive throughout her recovery; that positivity helped her fully recover. She needed a support system that would push her to achieve that goal. Dame Kelly Holmes on the other hand let the negativity take over her mind and she never let herself mentally repair which led to her depression. Her depression was caused by the fact that she never let herself be mentally repaired. Holmes needed a support system that made her realize that retirement was okay and she didn’t need to fall into a depression. If they both tried to heal the same way, it wouldn’t have worked. It needed to be recognized that they are two different people and they need to be repaired two different ways.

While Spelman focuses on the repair of inanimate objects, she also focuses on the repair of people. She connects the two ideas later in the book by saying,

“The analogy between the repair of a car and the repair of a person suggests that there is a kind of repair of humans that restores them to a state of basic functioning, of being able to use their energies and skills as they see fit” (Spelman 36).

While you can’t necessarily relate a car to a human, you can understand that they both can undergo the action of repair to bring them back to their basic state in order to function properly. The way you go about repairing humans is obviously different than cars, but that’s why we have psychologists and professionals to do so. In Repair, Spelman tells the story about Jackie, a 15-year-old girl who went crying to her parents to tell them she was pregnant. Spelman explains the similarity between Willie and a mother, in this case Ruth, through her example of Jackie,

“Willie’s handling of machinery and Ruth’s deliberations about Jackie calls upon highly contextualized knowledge. But it is not that alone that prompts the idea that Ruth, like Willie, is doing a kind of repair work. What makes it repair work is that Jackie’s world has, as we often say, fallen apart, and she needs help putting it back together” (Spelman 47).

As for Tara and Dame Kelly Holmes, they can relate to Jackie as they thought their lives were over after a bad injury. That’s why they needed someone to help mentally repair themselves to help put their worlds back together. Within these two examples, Tara allowed for her world to be mended while Holmes did not. You can see by their outcome that the mental repair is the necessity to a full recovery. Even if the physical injury heals, which they usually do, your mental state is what will allow you to go back to go back to the state of basic functioning.

Dame Kelly Holmes’s life was changed forever as was Tara’s. These two stories prove the two different effects injuries can have on people. How people recover from their injuries proves their mental strength and how mentally repaired they were. Doctors see the effects of sports injuries first hand every day. They see athletes come in either completely motivated to get back or completely destroyed and negative. Like Spelman explains in her book, no two objects can be repaired exactly the same. The road to recovery all depends on how you approach it.


I would like to begin by thanking my writing group members, Olivia, Amelia, and Chad, for all their amazing advice. They helped validate my ideas when I was unsure and gave me great critiques to make my work a lot better. I would like to give special thanks to my English teacher, Professor Harris, for all his help. I appreciate the time he takes out of his schedule to meet with each student individually to help make them a better writer. Also I would like to thank my TA, Frank, for also giving up his own time to help give me very helpful advice. I would finally like to thank my parents for all of their support. I am genuinely thankful for each individual I had mentioned, for all their tremendous help along the way!

Work Cited

@DameKellysTrust. “Dame Kelly Holmes Trust | Home.” Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World. Boston:Beacon, 2002. Print.

“Tara Rosenberg.” Telephone interview. 24 Oct. 2016.

Tarkan, Laurie. “Athletes’ Injuries Go Beyond the Physical.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Sept. 2000. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Williams, Holly. “My Secret Life: Kelly Holmes, Athlete, 40.” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, 8 Apr. 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

Wragg, John. “EXCLUSIVE: Olympic Hero Kelly Holmes Reflects on Athens Glory and Depression.” Expresscouk Other RSS. N.p., 28 Aug. 2014. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.

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