Ginger Yang, Community and Behavioral Health

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Jingzhen (Ginger) Yang has been battling athletic injuries since she set foot on the University of Iowa campus.

Arriving as a faculty member in 2004, the associate professor of community and behavioral health in the College of Public Health has spent seven years studying sports injuries and the ramifications they have on an athlete’s mental health.

Once a volleyball talent in her native China, Yang suffered multiple injuries during her career, affecting her physically and psychologically. Hoping to curb the negative repercussions injuries can cause, Yang has combined her PhD in public health with her athletic background to help athletes deal with injuries.

The UI Injury Prevention Research Center faculty member sat down with fyi to discuss the psychological effects injuries have on athletes, her involvement with Major League Baseball, and her love of good movies.

How did you become interested in the psychological ramifications of athletic injury?

I badly injured my elbow playing volleyball. I tore multiple ligaments. It was a tough experience mentally—I practiced so hard only to have my season abruptly taken away from me. So I have firsthand experience.

My interest from a scholarly perspective was sparked when my close friend’s son tore an anterior cruciate ligament playing high school football. His sporting experience was tarnished and it heavily impacted him mentally. Not only did he lose his season, but he lost out on a lot of the intangibles associated with being a member of a team. His relationship with his friends on the team changed due to his inability to be on the practice field daily. This motivated me to help injured athletes. People tend to only think about their physical condition; many forget about the psychological effects an injury may have on an athlete.

What are these psychological effects, and how are they treated?

When an athlete is injured, depression and anxiety could occur, depending on the severity of the injury. Athletes dedicate a profound amount of time to training; when they are unable to work on their skill, it can be anguishing. When an athlete is deeply distressed over an injury, it can lengthen their physical recovery time.

I have found through research that athletic trainers can play a pivotal role in keeping the athlete’s psyche intact. After injury, effective communication between an athlete and his or her trainer can modify their emotional distress. This can have profound results. When the negative perception of the injury is reduced, not only does this help ease one’s psychological pain, it can actually lead to a quicker physical return.

You say injuries can lead to stress—can stress lead to injuries?

Yes, it is a cyclic relationship. We work on preparing athletes mentally in case one succumbs to an injury. Preparation is important. Our hope is that when an injury does occur, these athletes will have the strategies they need to cope. These strategies could lessen any fear of getting injured again, which could lead to better performance.

Your work with sports injuries has led to Major League Baseball reaching out to you, correct?

Yes, and it is so exciting! I have been serving on two committees for MLB since October, the Medical Advisory Committee and the Injury Surveillance Committee. Baseball currently employs the Injury Tracking System, a very comprehensive program monitoring when, where, and how an injury occurs.

A few of my favorite things…
Stir-fried asparagus

Dancing with the Stars

Artist Andrea Bocelli

Tuesdays with Morrie

Although important for many sports, this study is crucial for baseball because many of these injuries are progressive. In football, injuries tend to be acute—fractures, sprains, and concussions. Baseball injuries are more progressive, therefore more difficult to monitor. For example, pitchers throw thousands of pitches every season through spring training, practice, and games—serious wear and tear on their shoulders and elbows. In its first season, this program hopefully will improve our understanding of how baseball injuries occur so specific strategies can be developed to prevent these injuries. Every team is participating in the program; nearly every possible statistic for every player will be recorded. Even the weather of each game will be recorded. I will be called back after the season to analyze the results with my peers.

What is something fellow faculty members may not know about you?

I absolutely love movies! Several years ago I started collecting all of the best-picture Oscar winners. I have more than 60 of them, and I am nearing my goal of obtaining all 83 films honored by the Academy. Each movie uniquely stands out amongst the crowd. I like all of them, but my favorites are Gone with the Wind, Forrest Gump, and Chicago.