When psychological pain becomes physical
Updated: Jan 11, 2021
Michelle Sng / @michsng
Team Singapore high jumper, 2017 SEA Games gold medallist, not as tall as she looks
There is physical pain in sports. The pain you feel after strenuous training sessions, the pain that comes from unfortunate injuries sustained. Then there is also the physical pain that comes masked as a manifestation of the psychological pain you feel.
I suffered my worst injury, a stress fracture to my left shin bone when I was 20, while training as a national high jumper. I ended up having a surgery in Germany. Surgery went as planned and I was cleared to go back to training after my scans came back with zero issues. But I never made it back on the track because of the pain I kept feeling in my left leg despite the clear scans. People also started to notice that I was constantly limping even though I wasn’t consciously trying to take weight off my left foot. Still, I tried everything I could to get myself back on the track. I lost some weight, reasoning that my leg would hurt less if I put less weight on it. I was wrong. The pain never went away.
"Physical pain that comes masked as a manifestation of the psychological pain you feel."
So I hung up my spikes, retired and left for a two-year expedition around the world. Cutting all ties with the sport helped to exorcise many of my mental demons. For one, I felt free of my self-imposed expectations to maintain a certain body size, given that high jumpers have to be on the smaller side. I no longer felt as concerned about how I looked, especially after meeting different people from different parts of the world and realizing that I am actually, objectively, quite tiny - I just couldn’t see it then because I was stuck in my high jump bubble. Traveling also helped me let go of my need to control everything. If you’re navigating India and the bus that Lonely Planet said will arrive at 9.30pm still hasn’t arrived at 10pm, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it but wait. I learnt that you can’t control everything that happens around you, but if you still let these things that you cannot control get to you then you’re going to be the only one who suffers. The same applies when I’m competing. If I’m going to stress about aspects of the competition that I don’t have any control over, then my performance will be affected. Learning to relinquish control also meant letting go of all this unnecessary stress.
"I eventually put on my spikes again, pain-free, and jumped to Singapore’s first gold medal since 1965 at the 2017 SEA Games."
Sometimes when you free yourself of your psychological pain, your physical pain goes away too. I remember doing a climb with a former training mate in Vietnam who asked me how my leg was coping at one of the rest stops. I had no clue what she was talking about. “Your shin!” She reminded me. Right. Of course. How could I forget? My shin. The shin that had caused me so much grief before I finally retired. The shin that I constantly felt pain in after getting injured, even after a successful surgery. The same shin that, in that moment, was not hurting me at all, because I had let go of the psychological pain associated with this injury.
This story ends happily. I eventually put on my spikes again, pain-free, and jumped to Singapore’s first gold medal since 1965 at the 2017 SEA Games. While I didn’t totally abandon the old Michelle in the different countries I visited during my retirement, I am quite different now. Aspects of the sport that I can’t control which used to get to me, like competition conditions and who my competitors are, bother me less now. Besides, I’ve found that I perform best when I trust myself and just let go. It’s like the classic high jump training trick that every coach has used, myself included: set up the bar, but don’t let your athlete know how high it is. Then tell them to just trust themselves, let go and jump. Sometimes not knowing how high the bar is, especially if it’s a height they’ve never cleared before, takes away their self-doubt and gives them more confidence to pull it off . What you think in your head, you manifest with your body. It’s the same with pain.