Breezy Johnson: Team USA Skier Makes Two Injury Comebacks

Even if it ain’t broke, still work to fix it.

I think the biggest reason that athletes wait too long to seek mental help is that we, and the people around us, feel that our mental game has gotten us to where we are. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ attitude turns into ‘If you win with a mental illness, it must be part of the reason for your success.’ This can often be dangerous the farther up we climb in the sport.

In the spring of 2018, I felt like the world was at my feet. I had just competed at my first Olympic Games, and I felt ready to take my 7th place performance to a gold medal in the future. I was working harder than ever, skiing at peak performance, and enjoying the hunt of victory that felt tantalizingly close to my fingertips. That all came crashing down, literally, after a September training crash left me with a torn ACL.

I put my head down and committed to doubling my work ethic to make it back onto the slopes. But, I had no idea what it would be like to watch my teammates and competitors move on and compete without me. I had no idea that many of the things I had relied upon to get me to my first Olympic Games would lead to anxiety, depression and crippling self-doubt in my attempt to return from serious injury. I knew what I was doing, I knew what I felt, but I had no idea why, and that meant that I was helpless to the pitches and rolls of the rollercoaster that was quickly becoming my life.

About three months in, I was breaking down on a near daily basis. I felt overwhelmed and drained. I was close to making it back onto the snow, but that closeness made me feel that much more overwhelmed. I had worked with a sports psychologist before, but I hadn’t found him to be very helpful. I knew how to visualize, I knew what intensity worked best for me on race day. What I needed was someone to help me deal with the swirling thoughts that plagued me outside of just my performance.

I decided, out of desperation mostly, to try again with a new psychologist, Alex. He was much more helpful because in addition to being a sports psychologist, he was a registered clinical psychologist. At the time, I didn’t realize that those were separate categories, but they are very different. I entered my relationship with Alex with the opening line of: “I do not need someone to mansplain what visualization is to me.”

We worked out a system where he didn’t offer unsolicited advice, and I slowly began trusting him with the real mental struggles I had. As I got farther into therapy, I realized that the perfectionist thoughts that I had relied upon to push me farther and farther; the self-doubt that I had relied upon to keep me from becoming complacent in victory; and my freakish desire for control that had allowed me to hone every aspect in my search for greatness –they were all spiraling out of control with this injury. My work with Alex allowed me to parse through my thoughts and discover their deeper meaning, which gave me control and a real way to combat my mental demons.

When I re-injured myself, this time tearing my PCL and MCL in my other knee, in June of 2019, I was devastated. But with Alex, I was able to spend less time spinning in my own thoughts and instead, dealing with issues as they arose. I lashed out less at my trainers and physical therapists, because I was better in control of my thoughts and emotions. Though the second injury was worse, and the mental battles because of that naturally harder, I felt like I tackled those challenges more quickly and as a result, moved more quickly and purposefully through my recovery. The timeline was longer, due to the nature of the injury, but I was all around better prepared to take on my comeback. And when biological healing was complete, I hit the slopes with a bang, finishing 5th in my third race back.

As I returned to skiing and competition last year, therapy took on an additional purpose. It became a means to enjoy skiing and racing more. I know that this career will not last forever, and so experiencing it deeply and enjoying it as much as I can while I have it is incredibly valuable for me. Winning is great, but being in a good place mentally makes it more rewarding. I spent a long time believing that just because some of my mental strategies were successful, that I didn’t have to change any of them. But just because ‘it ain’t broke,’ doesn’t mean it isn’t inefficient. Changing and improving your mental state might just lead you to more success and happiness.