Skating Star Michelle Kwan’s Injuries and Olympic Setback Speaks to Importance of Emotional Conditioning

Growing Role of Sports Psychology

New York, NY—February 13, 2006

As millions watched athletes at the XX Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy skate, ski and slide brilliantly on snow and ice, an examination of the agonizing collision, falling and failure also present at the games provides strong examples of the growing importance competitive athletes and trainers attach to mental toughness and emotional conditioning, according to Jenny Susser, Ph.D., a sports psychologist at Hospital for Special Surgery.

Perhaps the most poignant setback this year was actually the recurring groin pain and fall that forced figure skater Michelle Kwan to withdraw from the Olympics and give up a chance at winning an Olympic Gold Medal. It was the one prize that has eluded her throughout her celebrated career. Having it as a goal in the period leading up to the Olympics propelled her to recover from earlier injuries, petition Olympic officials for a place on the team, demonstrate excellence and re-join the team only to be forced to leave the team a short time later due to injury. An examination of Kwan’s experience can offer helpful insights and tips for all athletes, whether weekend warriors or elite competitors, according to Dr. Susser, a onetime All American swimmer and former assistant swim team coach at UCLA.

“Many times when we work with athletes at Hospital for Special Surgery on their post injury recovery, looking out ahead and seeing what they want to have happen post injury is really one of the most powerful things that can pull them through the rehabilitation process,” Dr. Susser said.

Goal setting is essential for any athlete, whether they are in pursuit of a medal or in recovery from an injury.

“The key thing is to have a good, realistic goal. You want it to be S-M-A-R-T. That stands for specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic (but challenging) and time-sensitive,” Dr. Susser said. Sports psychology emphasizes goal setting as well as other employing other tools such as developing positive mental imagery to replace negative visions of failure.

“At Hospital for Special Surgery, we find that athletes we treat learn that it is just as important to develop a positive ‘self talk’ as it is to develop flexibility and muscle mass,” Dr. Susser said.

Michelle Kwan’s journey will now be one of resolving her grief, and it will take some time, Dr. Susser added. In order to reach that resolution, Kwan will have to find a way to reconcile her dreams with the reality of the spectacular achievements she has made in life and find new goals that are meaningful and challenging for her.

 “The biggest thing an athlete can work on is self confidence. That is the platform from which other things can go well or go awry. Once you are at the Olympic Team level of performance, the top athletes’ physical abilities are not that different. It is the one who has the mental edge who wins,” Dr. Susser said.

A licensed clinical psychologist at the Women’s Sports Medicine Center at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, Dr. Susser offered the following tips to amateur athletes who have suffered a debilitating injury and who are also troubled by fears about returning to sport or risk of re-injury:

  • Start with resolving the physical issues of your injury. Get the best doctors, trainers and massage therapists that you can find to handle the physical part.  Find people you have confidence in, and if you have concerns, seek other help.  If you don’t have confidence in your doctor, it can affect your healing.
  • Determine what you want as an end result. Some injuries will allow you to return to sport. Some will not. Talk with your doctor and determine what is realistic.
  • Find a good sports psychology practitioner. Word-of-mouth referrals from people you trust are useful, and there are also the websites of the American Psychological Association and the Association for the Advancement of Applied Sport Psychology, which now has more than 1,300 members.
  • Check your insurance. Policies vary, but usually if a provider is a licensed clinical psychologist, an insurance policy will cover the cost.
  • Stick with the program. A serious injury can sometimes be emotionally devastating and trigger a psychological response identical to the sense of loss comparable to losing a loved one. Recovery takes time and it can vary from two sessions to two months or more, depending on variables. Patients are usually the best judge of when they are emotionally prepared to return to sport.

“Michelle Kwan may never get an Olympic Gold Medal, but over the past two weeks her character shined brighter than could any medal. She can serve as an example for all of us, athletes and non-athletes.  In time and with reflection and support, she will find a way to look back on her successful career and her decision and see that in fact, she did reach her goal, gold medal or not,”  Dr. Susser said.

About Hospital for Special Surgery
Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) is the world’s largest academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. HSS is nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics and No. 2 in rheumatology by U.S. News & World Report (2016-2017), and is the first hospital in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. HSS has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. HSS is an affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College and as such all Hospital for Special Surgery medical staff are faculty of Weill Cornell. The hospital's research division is internationally recognized as a leader in the investigation of musculoskeletal and autoimmune diseases. Hospital for Special Surgery is located in New York City and online at


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