How professional athletes cope with pain.

I am interested in the ways that people cope with pain. I recently saw my friend, Heather Irmiger (@irmigrrr), who is a world-class professional mountain biker. I asked her:

How do you cope with physical pain?

She differentiates two types of pain and talks about the strategy she uses depending on the pain.

For sharp pain, Heather uses distraction. (She later told me that she counts her pedal strokes.). Distraction is highly effective because it draws attention away from the source of the pain and requires cognitive resources that would normally be used to process pain information. Interestingly, research shows that more demanding attentional tasks are even more effective. In Heather’s case, counting by five’s might be even more effective.

For dull prolonged pain, she uses a form of dissociation — imagining another version of herself who is experiencing the pain and is separate from her. The technique is interesting and reminds me of research that investigates how we can have multiple selves. For example, the person who sets the clock before bed is a much different person than the person experiencing the alarm the next morning. The difference with Heather’s case is the two selves are present at the same time.


…………………………………..Heather, pain free

Further reading:

Bazerman, M. H., Tenbrunsel, A. E., & Wade-Benzoni, K. (1998). Negotiating with Yourself and Losing: Making Decisions with Competing Internal Preferences. Academy of Management Review, 23(2), 225-241.

McCaul, K.D., & Malott, J.M. Distraction and coping with pain. Psychological Bulletin, 95, 516-533.

The New Yorker article, Later, on procrastination.