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The Mental Comeback


Tynice Martin

Written by Jake Stump
Photographed by Raymond Thompson Jr.

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It started as a typical jump shot. West Virginia University women’s basketball guard Tynice Martin was gunning to make the USA National Team in 2017 when she pulled up for a jumper on one of the last days of tryouts. Martin, the 5’11” co-captain from Atlanta, Ga., landed awkwardly and crumpled to the floor. Her foot felt strange.

“It felt like my shoe was on the side of my foot,” said Martin, a redshirt junior. “But when I looked down to adjust my shoe, it was still on right.”

Martin took her shoe off and saw a big knot. Six hours later, the X-rays confirmed she had a broken foot. Doctors diagnosed her with a Lisfranc injury, a complex injury involving the joints and bones in the midfoot. What started as a three-month recovery period turned into multiple surgeries over a year.

Tynice Martin

The injury not only wiped away Martin’s chances of playing USA basketball, but it put her on the shelf for the entire 2017-18 WVU season. She went through all the steps to physically recover and has made her comeback. But she also credits sport psychology techniques with her recovery.

Damien Clement, who studies the psychology of sports injuries and has worked with injured athletes, wants that to be the norm in sports injury recovery. “Traditionally, when an athlete gets injured, the mindset is that the physician and athletic trainer are the only ones to help them with the injury,” said Clement, assistant dean of the Honors College and associate professor in the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences. “But, really, it’s a team of individuals that should include, but not be limited to, allied health professionals, counselors, psychologists, coaches, teammates, family and friends. We need to get to a place where we’re just not working with the athlete to get them back on the field or court. We need to evaluate how the injury affects everything else going on in that person’s life.” Although Clement has not worked with Martin, she still credits mental techniques in guiding her back to the court for the 2018-19 season. The following are Clement’s four mental techniques for an effective recovery.

Social Support

Clement says athletes recovering from sport injury need a social support network that will act as a buffer. Clement compares this to wrapping a champagne glass in bubble wrap and dropping it. “My team and coaches really helped me, from getting me all online classes so I didn’t have to go downtown on crutches, to including me in all the practices and games,” Martin said. “Nothing stopped. If I went away from the team, I would’ve been lost.” Support can come from sports medicine professionals, doctors and athletic trainers who share knowledge with the injured athlete. Then there’s tangible support such as money and transportation. Many injured athletes just want someone to listen to them, Clement said.

Goal Setting

One of the oldest and most utilized forms of overcoming any obstacle is to set goals and attain them, Clement said. When he worked with WVU athletes, they collaboratively set specific, measurable goals. “You don’t want to set too many goals, and you don’t want to make them too easy or hard,” Clement said. “The best thing to do is set moderately difficult goals which are specific, action-oriented and time-limited. These goals also need to be revisited on a regular basis to determine if they have been met or need to be revised.”

Mental Imagery

A third technique involves imagery, which is when an individual creates a picture in their mind of themselves in an environment performing a specific activity related to their rehabilitation. A player with a hamstring injury might imagine themselves performing leg extension exercises. “Creating a picture in the mind innervates the muscles in a similar way to physically practicing a movement,” Clement said. “You are mentally strengthening that pathway by creating that image.”

Deep Breathing

Another fairly simple trick, and distraction technique from pain, is to engage in deep breathing exercises. This can help regulate anxiety levels, which are typically higher with an injured individual. “I have athletes put one hand on their stomach and the other hand on their chest,” he said. “I have them take a deep breath and ask which hand should be moving first. Ideally, the hand on your stomach should move first, then the chest and then the shoulders. This simple technique helps demonstrate the concept of deep breathing.” Clement believes sport psychology research like his has opened the door for more holistic approaches to injuries in the collegiate sports setting. He hopes that sports medicine providers can incorporate these psychological techniques into rehabilitation programs for anyone recovering from injury. Martin said she’s 100-percent healed from the injury, although doctors told her she’d have arthritis for the rest of her life. “For a while, it was like I was 2 again,” she said. “I had to relearn how to move my toes. I was doing something over and over again that I knew I could once do on a day-to-day basis. “It feels good to think back to this time last year, and seeing how I’ve progressed from clapping on the sidelines. The support system, especially, has made all the difference.”