Four Athletes: Overcoming Mental Obstacles

In the world of sports, the spotlight often shines on the physical prowess, exceptional talent, and remarkable achievements of athletes. However, injuries are inevitable, and some spectators might be surprised by the hardest struggles an athlete faces when hurt. 

Four BYU athletes: Davin Thompson, Hinckley Ropati, Cooper Vest, and Mina Margraf recently discussed their struggles combating doubts, pressures, and fears–especially after injury.

Davin Thompson: 

“At one point I calculated, and I had been to over 50 doctor’s appointments and physical therapy appointments this year,” Thompson said. 

Davin Thompson is a cross-country All-American runner from Lehi, Utah. In 2022, he finished 30th overall at the NCAA championships with a 10k time of 29:28.8. However, last December he started having pain in his hip flexor area and was diagnosed with a stress reaction in his pubic bone. He was injured after a stellar season starting in December to May and reinjured it in summer camp causing Thompson to miss the Big 12 inaugural season. 

Because of his injury, Thompson spent two weeks relying on crutches to walk, and had about 15-20 weeks of cross-training to try and slowly build up his mileage. 

Thompson described how re-training his body is difficult.

“My form is different when I am coming back, and it is hard to feel normal. . . [and] get strong again,” he said. 

After months of hard work and training, Thompson is currently practicing with the team again. 

Hinckley Ropati: 

Ropati is a running back on BYU’s football team. Before his injury last summer in 2023, Ropati helped the team in the latter half of the season with 35 carries for 185 yards and one touchdown. 

“Back in fall camp, early August, it was like any other practice day, and I got rolled up in the tackle. [A fellow player] grabbed my ankle and twisted it and I heard a pop and [later] learned I tore my meniscus. Normally you return after a couple of days, but they told me I tore it at the root,” he said.

Ropati spent all football season rehabbing his knee post-surgery.

“No matter how good you feel it is a ligament, and you have to be patient,” he said.

Ropati is currently practicing with his teammates and is taking his recovery one day at a time. 

Cooper Vest:

“I came back from my first shoulder injury and was excited for sophomore year, ” Vest said. 

Vest is a first baseman and outfielder for the BYU Cougars baseball team. Before the regular season, he dove for the ball and tore his left labrum in his shoulder.

“It was a heartbreak to me because I knew I was going to miss the whole season,” he said.

Vest spent months going to physical therapy to get his shoulder back to normal. After his injury, he started noticing differences in his game.

“My game throwing-wise didn’t get 100% until the spring started in 2023,” he said. “Throughout fall, with the cold weather in Provo, it was hard to throw with a lot of breaks in between.” 

However, Vest noted that he improved in hitting.

“Freshman year I was highly energetic and sporadic and excited to get back to playing. A lot of time there was anxiousness. After my second injury, that was a huge help for me to understand the ball needs to get to me and then I can do my damage,” he said. 

Mina Margraf:

Margraf, a BYU gymnast, excels in vault, beam, and floor. She has had five sports surgeries since 2019, but she does not let that stop her from achieving her goals. 

Margraf’s sophomore year in high school she qualified for nationals. While preparing for the meet she missed the bar and because of her momentum, she landed on her hands first, causing tears in both of her elbows. 

“I finished practice (I don’t even know how..), but I couldn’t even hold books,” Margraf said.

After months of rehab and spending 90 minutes a day on her exercises, Margraf’s elbows healed, and Guard Young recruited her for BYU gymnastics. Currently, she is coming off of an ankle injury, but she still is competing this season on beam.

Mentally recovering after an injury:

Often the toughest battle when overcoming an injury is the mental game, according to Mike Gurr, a sports psychologist who treats Olympians, professional and collegiate athletes.

“When you talk about the mental component of the injury… [it] is greater because [the athlete] lost [their] identity, community and role. For so many players they don’t know what to do with that, [and] become lost,” he said.

These four athletes have a common thread—their love and passion for their respective sport. Each noted how depressed they were not practicing with their team. 

“When I was training, it was over 34 hours a week. My entire life was centered on gymnastics. When that was taken away from me, I had nothing to do in my day,” Margraf said. “I would go to practice. . . and mentally it was hard because I would watch people practicing and I would remember how long my recovery would be.”

Ropati had a similar mental struggle.

“Not being there you feel a distance from the team. You feel you are not a part of the team. Doubts start to creep in your head. You think ‘Is this even the sport for me?’ I’ll be lying if I said those thoughts never came to my head. I feel that the hardest part was to stay mentally locked in and staying mentally motivated and positive about the situation,” Ropati said. 

According to a study of athletes and coaches, one lasting impact of an injury is called a mental block. Sports psychologist Melissa Day defines a mental block “as the situation when athletes are no longer able to perform a skill which at one point they were able to perform with ease.”

Gurr says there are three methods as to why these mental blocks occur:

  1. Outcome thinking—an athlete is concerned with something that is out of their control. 
  2. Experience—an athlete starts to overthink after a few bad games or a few bad reps.
  3. Injury—an injury can cause a mental block because athletes question if they can trust their bodies and return to the same field/court where the incident occurred. 

For Vest, he said that the mental block he had to overcome was allowing himself to succeed.

“The mental block coming out of it was releasing all the chains and locks so I could allow myself to be successful,” he said. 

On the other hand, runners have a hard time coming back and competing because it is a pure fitness-based sport.

“The longer you can train in a row the better you are, it’s just a fact,” Thompson said. “It’s hard to tell myself that I am one of the best runners in the country when I haven’t really been that good for over a year because I’ve been hurt.”

Despite these mental blocks, Gurr notes that what separates the good athlete from the great to the elite is their mind.

It is possible to overcome mental blocks. It just takes time, patience, endurance, and humility to get back up and try again. 

For Ropati, the biggest thing that helped him was surrounding himself with positive people.

“My wife has been a huge part of that, even my family, that is what got me through the mental side of it was the people around me.”

Vest relied on his faith to endure this challenge.

“Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ helped me through it a lot. [I] start[ed] to realize that baseball is gonna be over at one point in [my] life. To be okay with that unlocks abilities mentally and physically to know it is something I get to do every day,” he said.

Margraf shifted her focus to believing in herself and her abilities. 

“I know I can trust in my gymnastics, and I know I am better now. All I can do is put that aside and focus on what is right,” she said. 

Thompson uses his work ethic to pass through barriers.

“For me, I work hard to get through mental blocks. If I am working as hard as I can then the rest will follow. I can’t be mad at any outcomes if I work as hard as I can.” 

Before their injuries, they were successful competitors. Since, their injuries, they each created a new appreciation for their sport and the resilience to fight their way back to the top. New skills were gained to overcome these challenges both physically and mentally.  If anything, being hurt made them stronger. 

Bibliography: 

Day, M., C., Thatcher, J., Greenlees, I., & Woods, B. (2006). The causes of and psychological responses to lost move syndrome in national level trampolinists. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18, 151-166. 

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