Recovering from Quadriplegia and Inspiring Others


The following is a piece written by Unsinkable’s Jody Carrow from her interview with Mike Shaw

Mike Shaw is a legit rare human – not many people fully recover from incomplete quadriplegia. This fact about him is interesting enough but then when you listen to his TED Talk “Grief Happens”, you learn what actually makes Mike a rare human has less to do with his accident and injury, or even his miraculous recovery, and more to do with who he has always been and who he has become since. And then you dive a little deeper into the what and how of the ways Mike is living his life (you watch Red Bull TV’s documentary Mike Shaw – The Healing Agent, maybe you scroll through his website mikeshawski, perhaps you find yourself checking out his start up company Headstartpro), you begin to realize that this man will always be unstoppable. There’s a lot about Mike that contributes to this, but his ultimate superpower? Gratitude.

Gratitude fires all of Mike’s endeavours whether he’s public speaking, coaching, being an athlete ambassador for the Wings for Life foundation, or participating in the brutal Red Bull 400 Run. He spoke to me from his office.

Mike, what is occupying most of your time these days?

Definitely on a company I started called Headstartpro. It’s a performance-training program that achieves injury prevention. We’ve kind of coined the phrase: Performance Driven Injury Prevention. It’s a cause that’s very close to my heart because I want to prevent accidents like mine from happening to someone else.

I’ve read up on Headstartpro and I want to know what the secret ingredient is to injury prevention across sport.

Based on public surveys, over 95% of the acute injuries you have are a result of being in a state of (1) rushing, (2) frustration, (3) fatigue, or (4) complacency. Or a combination of them.

So those four things compromise your focus, your awareness and your decision-making… Usually you are in one of those states before you get hurt. You can use this state as a trigger to bring you back to the moment… We basically teach people to stop making mistakes. It’s a human error prevention-training program. If you make zero mistakes you’ll be better at what you do.

What state(s) were you in at the time of your accident?

I was rushing and complacent. I had to catch up to my athletes (or at least I thought I did) – all my athletes were gone [down the mountain]. I had a plan but instead of thinking through the plan, I set off down the hill so quickly that it wasn’t until I was going into the jump that I thought, Oh yeah – what trick am I doing? Oh right, it’s a 720.

I’ve done 720s a thousand times. I did my first one when I was 14. It was so easy for me, a bread and butter trick. But there was a ton of complacency. A 720 is still a 720, you still always need to give a mental check before you drop in. Which is what I would normally do – normally I’m quite a methodical coach and skier… But that day I was in a rush to catch up and because of complacency I was like, Whatever; it’s just a 720.

Now it’s my purpose to help prevent accidents and if I can do that in a way that helps people perform at a higher level or achieve excellence, then even better. And the reality is, if you want to see a change in behaviour, you need to appeal to what will motivate people to change. For most of us, myself included, safety is not much of a motivator. Nobody gets fired up about being extremely safe, especially in sport. But people will work toward being better at their sport.

So if you can just appeal to that motivation alone and say that you’ve got a program, a process that will help you improve your focus, your awareness, your concentration, your decision-making and performance, they don’t even need to know that injury prevention benefits are actually built into all of that.

So I’m literally trying to change the world in the way that we think about sport safety. For instance, if you want to catch the first concussion, if you want to prevent any type of injury – but especially that first concussion – you go to the root cause of what actually leads up to that first concussion. Go to the root cause of why people make mistakes: lack of focus and inattention. When you’re looking and thinking about what you’re doing, when your presence of mind is there, you rarely screw up. And when you apply yourself mentally and physically in the present moment, you rarely get hurt.

It makes so much sense because it shifts you out of reacting to a state of being, to controlling how you direct that state.

It’s so true and it works. It’s incredible… There’s applications to it in almost every part of sport, almost every part of life, really. Like, have you ever sent an email when you’re mad or exhausted? [Laughing] And how did that work out for you?

[H]ow many millions of dollars are spent on sports injuries each year? The statistic I have is that in 2010 between the ages of 12-19 in Canada, there were 831,000 hospital ER treatments for injuries. So 1 in 4 young Canadians are going to the ER. And 2/3 of the injuries are coming from sport. They certainly aren’t coming from things like working, walking, or household chores!

It seems like a no-brainer, something all athletes regardless of age or ability should have exposure to.

It is but I’m not gonna lie; it’s been hard. All three of us partners are working our butts off to keep Headstartpro going and get the word out. It’s do or die but I’m not gonna let the latter happen. I’m throwing everything I can at this to make it happen and keep helping people. We’ve got to get this into every sports program.

It’s an interesting place to be when you have a story like yours – and what a story it is – and you still recognize its power and understand how you can leverage it to do the work you are doing now with Headstartpro.

I’m also doing a lot of public speaking where I share my story, which is great. But I’m also trying to be so much more than my story. I stay motivated to tell it again and again. But it’s emotional and draining to do that work. I’ve done a lot of digging to truly understanding the power of gratitude. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people who were in the thick of grief and struggling with despair. In the process, I got to unpack a lot of my own grief. I realized pretty early on about the power of gratitude in the healing process. But gratitude extends so far beyond grief, pain, and one actionable way to deal with trauma. A quick perspective shift on grief:

You shouldn’t go through life without grief because a life without grief means you are living a life without love. If you feel pain, try feeling thankful that you had that person or experience, whatever it is that you lost, in your life in the first place.

When you said in your TED Talk that gratitude is the antidote to grief, it really struck me. Does what you said about gratitude still hold true?

Yes. When your loss is significant, grief will never fully go away. And I don’t think we ever fully want it to. Because if you move on from grief, it’s like you have moved on from love. If I stop hurting when I think about skiing, that would be the real tragedy because it would mean I have lost the love for it. You don’t want to ever leave behind or forget about your loss, but you want to move forward with it. Imagine a life where you haven’t loved and lost. It would be a life deprived of the full human experience. I am going to choose to live passionately with love in my heart, even though I know it means I will grieve again. And when that grief comes, I’ll move forward with it and gratitude will help.

Gratitude is so powerful is because it evokes a physical response that helps you change up how you feel. When you think about and embody gratitude for your experiences, it becomes a tool to help you move forward with your grief.

I really like how you say that.

I have to work on it still. We all do. There’s 8 billion of us on the planet and the vast majority of us are hardwired this way. To feel, to grieve, to love, and to be grateful. There’s balance in everything in life. For every high mountain peak, there’s a low valley bottom. And so be grateful for the peaks and remember when you’re down in the valley that you’ve been on top before and you can get there again.

It’s hard when you’re down there. Especially when you’re deeper than you’ve ever been before; or for some people when the valley bottom feels proportionately lower than their peak has ever been.

When you’re down in the valley bottom and you don’t think you can get any lower, you’re literally pounding your fists on the bedrock, the gates of hell, it’s completely counterintuitive to think about what you have to be thankful for. But that’s the time to put gratitude to work. It’s hard to do that work. Still, there’s always something to be grateful for [laughing]…like maybe you can still pick your own nose or get yourself to the bathroom –

Or maybe you have a friend who will pick it for you because they love you that much.

Exactly! You can always find something if you decide to look for it. So instead of focusing on all you’ve lost, try to find one thing you still have….it pays dividends in the long run for our emotional healing and taking back our lives. Then we are able to find new mountain peaks to stand on. Peaks of happiness… if something isn’t working out right now, it just means it’s not finished yet. It’s always going to work out.

Whatever challenges you’re facing right now, whatever obstacle or adversity is in your way, you’ve got to go through it or over it to keep moving forward. Gratitude is the thing that will help you get there.

Gratitude is a work and discipline, isn’t it? But what makes it so sweet is that it takes work. If gratitude always came easy, there would be no miracles, would there?


What changes in your life when you lose the practice of finding gratitude for a period of time? Or what makes you notice you’ve lost the practice?

Everybody’s got the angel and the devil on their shoulders. We’ve all got a growth mindset and we’ve all got a fixed mindset. We can really be our own best friend and our worst enemy… there are times when I feel defeated. Especially as a start up with Headstartpro. There are good days, and then there are days when I have to actively remind myself why I started. It’s a grind when you don’t feel like you’re making progress or you get hit with a setback. That is when I know I have to check in and change my state, change my story, activate gratitude and spend time about thinking how lucky I am.

In work, gratitude helps my productivity and helps me perform at a higher level and helps me connect with people at a deeper level. Instead of dreading doing a cold call, I switch to how thankful I am to be able to do this work that I love. People can feel it for sure!

Did you ever question your worthiness during your recovery as you met person after person with spinal cord injuries who didn’t heal the way you did and who never will? Not the ‘why me’ of the accident but the ‘why me’ of your recovery?

Absolutely. Survivor’s guilt was huge. I feel sometimes that my story is not really that worthy of the attention. Two of my friends were in a car accident about 2 years after my recovery – one passed away and one became a complete quadriplegic.

And I’m like, why me? Why did I get to recover? She has just as much will to do it, she’s just as worthy, she’s giving recovery everything she has, and she feels lucky to be alive, but why doesn’t she get to recover?

I try to turn my guilt into motivation… I try to focus on because I’m here and because I’m still standing and because I’ve been so lucky, I have to do more. Even though my disability is now invisible, it does not mean I cannot relate to people who are struggling because we all struggle. And I can connect with them in a deeper and more profound way – at least I hope I am! – because of my story.

I realized a long time ago is that part of my purpose is to help others… And after the trauma of the spinal cord injury, I had all these opportunities come my way: the TED Talk, the documentary, my work with the Wings for Life Foundation as an athlete ambassador for spinal cord injury, Headstartpro, and this interview… all these amazing things have become part of my purpose.

I don’t do it all on my own. I’m a huge proponent of reaching out when I need help and I have trusted people I can call on.

I’m so glad you’re in the world doing the work you’re doing.

Likewise! These conversations are so uplifting. I rarely say that but it’s true. Once I read what Unsinkable was all about, there was no doubt that I was going to get on board.

The whole Unsinkable team thanks you, Mike.

Thank you, Jody. This has been a spectacular conversation. Let’s stay connected.


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