Psychology of Heartbreak: Can Gymnast Jordyn Wieber Regroup for Team USA?

Just days after a disappointing finish in the qualifying round, Wieber faces the team finals

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David Eulitt / Kansas City Star / MCT / ZUMA PRESS

Jordyn Wieber of the U.S., center, weeps as she is consoled by Team USA assistant coach Jenny Liang, left, after the scoreboard display of the final team and individual standings in the women's gymnastics preliminaries of the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games on Sunday, July 29, 2012.

Disappointment is a part of sports, and like any emotional shock, it takes time to work through.

But Jordyn Wieber, the 17-year-old U.S. gymnast who missed making the all-around final, in which she was favored to win gold, doesn’t have the luxury of months, or even weeks, to work through her feelings. After the shocking outcome on Sunday, tonight she’s expected to join her teammates in fighting for the U.S.’s first team gold in 16 years — to put aside her disappointment, anger and frustration and perform as if her heart isn’t broken.

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Immediately after learning that she had missed the all-around final, in which only the top two gymnasts from the highest-scoring countries in the qualifying round can compete, she walked through the media area in tears, opting not to answer questions.

“It’s hard to say how long it will take to grieve that loss,” says Jeff Brown, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who specializes in sports psychology. “You can’t put a timeline on it, saying in two weeks it will be taken care of, or even in two years.”

In other cases of such traumatic loss, Brown says, he would advise people to take their time in analyzing and accepting the shock. He’d also recommend that athletes reduce their exposure to things reminding them of their emotional jolt, to manage their intense and turbulent feelings of anger, frustration, jealousy and animosity.

But Wieber has just two days. Making matters worse, she is rooming in the Olympic Village with Aly Raisman, the teammate who finished first for the U.S. and took Wieber’s place; over the past few years, the two have become friends, bonding during their regular training camps as part of the U.S. national gymnastics team.

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“The key ingredient here is to remember that the relationship is important, even though people are focusing on the competition,” says Brown. “And it’s helpful to focus on the fact that her friend wasn’t vindictive in competing. I would be bonding with my friend over the rule that separated us, not necessarily our performance. Jordyn did her best, and her friend did her best, and the numbers were just off,” he says.

Easy to say, not as easy to execute. Just days before the competition, Wieber’s mother Rita said her daughter has always been very prone to emotional hills and valleys. “There was such an intensity to her when she was little. She was always either laughing or crying,” she said. “She was very intense about her emotions. As she got older, she became a little more even.”

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Because the reversal was such a shock, Wieber likely is still sorting through her feelings, and in her first tweet a day after the qualifying round, she acknowledged as much: “It’s hard to explain these feelings. But I’m extremely honored to be an Olympian and be a part of this team.”

And focusing on the team event is what she should do, although her task may be more challenging that that of her teammates. “Dealing with this is part of her next competition,” says Brown. “This will be part of her mental preparation for the team competition.” Her challenge: reminding herself that the shock over the outcome is validation that her talent justifies the expectation that she should be competing against the best gymnasts in the world, and that Sunday’s results are an outlier. “It should be a confidence booster that literally millions are shocked about this, and that doesn’t mean that the next performance will be awful and terrible.”

At this level, athletes are accustomed to dealing with disappointment and reversals of fortune, but that doesn’t mean it gets any easier. Especially at the Olympics.