A few weeks back Socrates had a chat to World Champion hurdler, Sally Pearson, about her last few years as an athlete. What a tale the world’s number one had to tell. In Part 1. of Sally’s story, Socrates describes Pearson’s rise from the ashes despite extraordinary physical and emotional pressures and, just to prove she doesn’t mind doing it the hard way, she did it all without a personal coach!
Most sports lovers know that Sally Pearson coached herself to win the IAAF 100m Hurdles World Championships in London this year. That’s some achievement! Few sports lovers though realise the full extent of that achievement. To really get it, you need to jump into a time machine and hop back to June 2015 when Pearson was competing in a Diamond League event in Rome.
Part way down the track she felt a strange twinge in her left calf muscle and, half way over a hurdle, the sudden loss of power in the leg and the associated loss of balance, caused her to topple forward and smash her arm into the track at full pace. Sally’s screams of horror at the sight of her hand turning a morbid shade of blue, in combination with sobs of agony associated with the injury, had track officials rushing to her aid. A rushed trip to hospital, fears of the possibility of losing the hand, a diagnosis of ‘exploded’ bones in her wrist, plus several operations on the smashed arm to repair the damage prevented Sally from appreciating that the ‘slight’ calf tear that had caused the accident was considerably more serious than initially thought. Despite the horror injury to the wrist, it was the calf that ended up being the nightmare injury to repair.
Competing at the World Championships at Beijing in what was a little over a month’s time was quickly ruled out. At least this enforced layoff provided Pearson her first break in serious competition for years, enabling her to put in a special effort towards preparation for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Not just the hand!
Once the wrist issue was stabilised, it quickly dawned on Sally and her team that the ‘little’ calf strain was a 15-cm rip close to her achilles tendon! ‘A nasty, nasty tear’ in the words of her physio. Those who helped Pearson take care of her body and injuries were deeply concerned about the possibility of the calf failing again as she worked her butt off to rebuild strength in the shredded muscle. After sustaining such a debilitating injury, building up the courage to test the muscle at any kind of serious speed took time. Slow and careful was the order of the day. Gradually, she was increasing her speed at training and things were starting to look good.
Just when her strength and power were returning to the left leg and Rio plans were starting to get on track again a few cells in her right achilles tendon failed. Months of limping and rehab on the left leg had put a strain on the right. It wasn’t a complete rupture, which would have been a disaster for the athlete, but any achilles injury needs to be taken seriously and Pearson was relegated to being a rehabilitating athlete rather than a training athlete for another four months!
So much lost time
The injury itself may not have been devastating but the circumstances were. The Olympics were rushing up and, since Rome Sally had been dealing pretty much with recovery from injuries, rather than getting ready for the Games. How would she recover the lost four months of preparatory work, the lost four months of speed building, the lost four months of technique building, the lost four months of planning and the lost four months of psychological preparation? Her competitors were getting stronger and faster and better prepared in every way and Sally was nursing a dodgy achilles tendon! This was a bleak time… a dark, dreary and despondent time. Sally found herself in an unfamiliar headspace. A space where she couldn’t see how she could possibly get back to where she knew she needed to be.
Just when everything seemed to be about as bad as it could be, it got worse. While she was madly trying to train herself back into peak fitness, with the Games only two months away, she felt that familiar niggle in one of her hamstrings that told her a major hamstring tear might only be one run away. She could keep training and go to the Olympics and risk a complete hamstring rupture or she could bail now and preserve what was left of a broken body. She took the smart option and withdrew from what is every athlete’s priority event – the Olympic Games. After a nightmare 12 months, the Rio dream was over.
Retirement on the cards?
Four serious injuries in the space of 12 months! It’s no exaggeration to say that the next few weeks Sally endured a period of intense grieving. Not just anger. Fury! Frustration! Deep sadness! Initially, she says that she felt her career was done. Retirement seemed the best option. It seemed her body just did not want to cooperate. She had worked so hard to build it up to where it needed to be only to have it fail again. Things seemed hopeless.
After eight weeks of doing no physical activity at all – just spending time with close friends and family and trying to have a bit of fun for a change – and allowing herself to come to terms with the losses of the previous 12 months, Sally started to think seriously about the future. Initially, she had wanted to just ‘sulk and cry in the corner… and be really angry’, but as time passed she began to see that things didn’t have to be so bleak. After that initial period of grieving and resting she began asking herself questions about what her future might hold.
If I decide to give athletics another go, how should I go about it? Should I move to the US? Should I stay here on the Gold Coast? Who could coach me? Should I coach myself? Could I coach myself? Could that work? Would it be possible? Could I get myself ready for the World Championships in London in 2017 and then work towards the Olympics in Japan? Despondency began to turn to excitement.
Could Sally self-coach?
Sally wondered whether self-coaching was a reasonable option. Despite her years of experience around the athletics track she was nervous that maybe she couldn’t do the job. It was a big ask. There is so much pressure on top-ranked athletes to just perform; did she really want to take on the pressure of coaching herself as well? She had plenty of technical expertise. After many years of studying the craft of hurdles under the tutelage of many top-flight coaches, knowledge was not going to be an issue. Pearson is as sharp as a tack. Her climb to the top was not just about having an extraordinary physical talent and enormous determination and drive. She also had a good head on her shoulders that enabled her to deeply understand the technical elements of the sport. She had the technical expertise to coach. Neither would motivation be a problem. Sally didn’t need a coach to push her into training session after training session either. She didn’t need to be coaxed to work hard. Like most athletes who reach the top, Sally Pearson was a determined, self-motivated character, with the courage of a lion and the heart of Phar Lap. Nup. Knowledge and commitment were not issues.
One small problem might be her lack of experience in developing detailed programs. The thought of sitting down in front of a computer to start developing her very own training program and staring at a blank screen and not knowing where to start was intimidating. A far greater problem, though, was that she knew that, as coach, she would be responsible for taking care of the body and mind of a precious athlete… who just happened to be herself! She knew that her athlete’s instinct would be to train her backside off and just when she was at the point of collapse she would want to force herself to train some more. Champion athletes push themselves to the limit. Champion athletes leave no stone unturned to achieve optimum performance. She knew that, given that she was returning from a series of serious injuries, such an undisciplined approach to work would have dire consequences. She knew that coach Pearson would have to keep athlete Sally in check. Coach Pearson would have to carefully manage athlete Sally’s body.
Leading up to the Rio Olympics, Pearson was ready to make the decision. After considering the pros and cons of self-coaching and having a good chat with herself that went something along the lines of ‘Okay Pearson, you know what you are like with other coaches… are you going to be smart and do what you are told with this new coach… because your health and future depend upon it.’ Why not give it a go, she thought, if it doesn’t work out I could change plans. I will be able to find another coach if this doesn’t work but, the clock is ticking, so let’s just give it a try. The next few days saw Sally Pearson sitting down at that computer and, despite initial nervousness and some misgivings, she started developing a sensible training program and plan to get her to the World Championships in London in 2017.
Resentful? Nup… excited!
When Sally looks back now she remembers enjoying watching the Rio Olympics on television… the Games where she should have been starring. She should have been resentful. Gutted even. She wasn’t. She had started training and was already feeling herself getting stronger. She could feel her technique coming back. She had a plan and the plan culminated in a specific goal… to perform at the highest level at the World Championships in London. This was exciting. Sally was seeing a path ahead for the first time in ages and it felt great. It was starting to look like coach Pearson and athlete Sally might make a good team.
Tune in to the next edition of Sportsocratic.com to read Part 2. of Sally Pearson’s amazing story!