How Elite Athletes Overcome Complex Injuries

I’ve long spoken about elite athletes’ ability to cultivate something I like to call the “victorious spirit.” The premise is this: Adversity can be a catalyst for incredible opportunity and resiliency.

Even a couple years ago, Tiger Woods exemplified this spirit. Back in 2018, Woods had already faced many health and personal setbacks and challenges. Frankly, those setbacks would have been enough to make most of us throw in the towel. But Woods didn’t. And now, even given his recent accident — and the back and leg injuries it caused — I still believe he will put in a valiant effort to emerge victorious in life and sport. In that kind of perseverance, there resides a lesson for all of us.

[Read: 7 Easy Ways to Fuel Young Athletes.]

As an orthopedic surgeon, my experience and time spent treating elite athletes have shown that these individuals have honed the skill and ability to overcome complex injuries — usually more successfully than the average person. That honed skill, I believe, is the ability to use adversity to their physical, mental and performance advantage. Rather than allowing misfortune to affect their confidence, elite athletes use it as motivation to fuel their competitive juices and set their sights on achieving the “impossible.” They develop a keen and laser-like focus, and they fight on, able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It is this spirit, mental focus and emotional intelligence that drives them to be great.

Tiger Woods’ recent car accident resulted in him suffering multiple severe fractures to the lower sections of his right leg, as well as significant traumatic injury to his right ankle and foot. He’s already undergone surgery to relieve pressure and implant rods and screws into the affected areas to help them stabilize and heal. At this time, there may be even more surgeries in the future to repair the damage. The prognosis may appear bleak to most people. On social media platforms and news websites, fans and reporters are once again questioning if he will ever return. I have a feeling Woods will use their doubts as fuel for a remarkable comeback.

[See: 8 Health Challenges Facing Olympic Athletes.]

You see, Woods resides in the pantheon of the world’s greatest athletes who have come back from the brink. Before this recent accident, he’d endured at least eight surgeries on his knee and spine. Both he and Kobe Bryant are among the best athletes I have seen be able to rebound from that kind of adversity. Though the road to recovery for this latest obstacle will not be easy, so long as there is air in his lungs and a way forward, a fire will burn bright within his victorious spirit. After all, Woods has defied the odds more than once. Yes, his latest battle has just begun, and there are many variables and hurdles to overcome. But if you had to put your money on any athlete who could overcome such insurmountable odds, it would be Tiger Woods.

Should Woods need additional motivation, he can look no further than Washington Football’s quarterback Alex Smith. Named the NFL’s 2020 Comeback Player of the Year, Smith sustained a devastating and season-ending leg injury, not unlike Woods, and subsequent surgery in 2018. Many didn’t believe he’d ever return to football. But according to the NFL, as it shared news of Smith winning the comeback award, “his motivation and sheer willpower afforded him the chance not only to continue his career but also elevate the Washington Football Team to its first NFC crown and postseason appearance since 2015.” Motivation and willpower are vital ingredients of a victorious spirit, and Alex Smith is proof that it works.

[See: 8 Signs You Are Made to Be an Athlete.]

While it’s true that most of us will never achieve the elite status of Tiger Woods or Alex Smith, we can all take a page from their mental playbook. Though I’ve treated many elite athletes throughout my career, I’ve also cared for a multitude of regular folks like you and me. Those who come out on top of their injuries and emerge victorious over them do not allow adversity to win the game. They face it head-on, tackle it with positivity and optimism, and reach levels of excellence that we can all admire.

More from U.S. News

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