Using Sport Psychology to Help Overcome Injuries: An Interview With Darla Davies

Hello, I'm here with ballroom dancer, Darla Davies to talk about her journey from hip replacement surgery to athletic victory. Specifically, we're going to talk about how she used sport psychology to help her overcome her hip injury and regain her success as a dancer. Let's get started!

Hello Darla, can you please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background and dancing career?

Davies: As a young girl, I was horse crazy, and my life was consumed with equestrian competition. When I was 40, I watched a Professional Latin dance competition on TV and I became mesmerized by the energy, the athleticism, and the costumes. I wondered if that was something I could do. I started taking lessons at a local dance studio and eventually met Professional American Smooth Champion Jim Maranto who became my teacher, my dance partner, and eventually my husband. Together we have won many championships over the last 15 years, including two United States Pro Am American Smooth Championships.   

What a great life story! Can you please tell me about the hip injury that you suffered?

Davies: An active life of tennis, golf, and gym workouts, left me with sore legs which gradually worsened over the next five years. The painful groin ache in my left leg sent me in search of relief. First a chiropractor told me that my problem was "definitely not the hip." Next, an orthopedic doctor discovered my degenerative arthritis of the hip on an x-ray. He suggested anti-inflammatory drugs, pain killers, physical therapy, and steroid injections. The doctor suggested that I put off hip replacement surgery because artificial joints are believed to last only 15 years. 

When you realized the severity of your injury, what thoughts were going through your head? How did this injury initially affect your motivation, commitment to dancing, and mental health?

Davies: After wasting much time and money with the chiropractor and orthopedic doctor, I was desperate because my pain was so extreme. I was so depressed because I was no longer able to dance or do much at the gym. I got a special referral to see an expert who would help me. This retired surgeon, former chairman of orthopedics at a large hospital, and world-traveled researcher, also suggested that I put off hip replacement surgery, because at 50 I was considered young for this surgery. This wise expert offered me no sympathy, nor solutions. I told him that I was anxious to get back to ballroom dance competitions. He asked me what I needed to do. I told him that I must move from one leg to the other with strength and power, and I had to run backwards down the dance floor in two and a half inch heels. He shook his head and told me that I would not be able to dance again after hip surgery. I was annoyed and angered by his ignorant statement. It was at that moment, I decided that I would have to prove him wrong.  I eventually found a wonderful surgeon who after seeing my terrible x-ray, said I had no choice but to get a hip replacement. He said that he would have me dancing again in no time.

Tell me, how were you able to stay motivated and maintain your self-belief during your rehab?

Davies: My surgeon was positive and gave me the confidence to believe that I could make it through the grueling journey back to the dance floor after hip replacement surgery. I did everything my surgeon and nurses told me to do. I started with little exercises in my hospital bed, and then progressed to home therapy exercises. Even if the exercises seem stupid, I still did them every day. I progressed to physical therapy at the gym and eventually moved on to a personal trainer who had me doing leaping lunges across the gym. I constantly surprised myself by what I was capable of doing with my new hip. I believed that I could and would come back and win again. I made plan and I would stick to it, no matter what...

And how were you able to cope through this adversity and maintain your happiness and mental health?

Davies: There were times when my personal trainer, Derek gave me tasks that were really tough. Sometimes I would question if it was OK for me to even try it, and other times it was so difficult that I wanted to give up, lay down and cry. Derek always toughened me up, reminded me of my goal and encouraged me to press on. After a tough training session, I would remind myself that I was one step closer to my goal of winning another national championship title.  

Once your doctors cleared you to dance again, how did you use sports psychology to help you overcome the fear of re-injuring yourself, and regain peak performance?

Davies: I used my sports psychology training to overcome negative thoughts throughout my recovery from surgery. My surgeon told me I could do anything I wanted except for two things. He said, "don't get tackled, and don't slide into base!" I felt empowered. I had a new titanium hip. My competitors did not. I believed that I would actually be stronger that my competitors. I felt like I had an advantage, not a disadvantage. 

In what other ways did you use sport psychology throughout your career, and to how much importance do you think it played in your success?

Davies: I had studied sports psychology when I was a competitive equestrian. I learned that athletes are remembered for their achievements and great performances, not the ones they mess up. Failure is not final. Failure is not fatal. Ten months after my hip replacement surgery, I placed 5th in the US Championships. I was happy to place in the top 6, but I still believed that I could win a national championship with my new hip. For the next year, I lived, breathed, and believed that I had already won, and I was just waiting to go pick up the trophy. The following year, one year and ten months after hip replacement surgery, I became the Pro Am Open The World American Smooth Champion!

What advice can you give to athletes and performance artists to help them deal with the pressures of performing in front of many people.

Davies: Remember that no athlete or dancer wins every time. I feel that too many people give up too soon. If you have a performance that does not go well, or you don't win accolades, people don't go home and discuss you over dinner. People remember great performances. Athletes should not be afraid to fail. I always remember Michael Jordan saying "I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times I've been trusted to take the winning shot and missed. I've failed over, and over, and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."

What advice would you give to athletes who want to continue competing for as long as they possibly can?

DaviesAlways surround yourself with positive people who are encouraging. Choose your doctors wisely. Some medical professionals are misinformed. Stay fit, healthy, and strong, and your skills and performances will continue to improve. I once met famed fitness expert Jack Lalanne when he was in his 90s. I told him that I had just bought his juicer that he advertised on TV. Jack told me to never eat anything that comes out of a box and to keep juicing for a long healthy life. 

Thank you so much Darla for sharing with us your experiences. We can all learn a lot from you!

If you want to learn more about Darla Davies and her incredible story, please read her new book,  Who Said I’d Never Dance Again? A Journey from Hip Replacement Surgery to Athletic Victory. You can order it today on Amazon using this link: