“No athlete is truly tested until they’ve stared an injury in the face and come out on the other side stronger than ever.” - Anonymous.
I have always had a plan, a goal if you will, to play until I couldn’t, and figure out ways to be back on the court ASAP if there were any injuries. But nothing really prepares you for when those setbacks arrive.
I’ve been extremely lucky to have never suffered any major injury. A couple of jammed fingers, and hip burns were the highlights of my list, until last year when I welcomed a serious injury that ultimately needed surgery. Thaaaanks body for this quarter life injury crisis.
In high school and elementary, pain was non existent. I had Osgood Schlatter’s for a brief period (which is basically these fun little calcium bumps that build up just below the knee), but other than that I was active everyday in many sports and could play up to five volleyball games in a day. No warm up, no problem. I still don’t understand how, but that’s youth sports for you. If I wasn’t injured nothing would stop me.
And just like that everything was suddenly different.
Fast forward to this past year where I spent my 3rd professional season in France when things really started to decline for my body. I arrived with pain in my shoulder, something I thought would get better with time, but time was never on my side. From the day I arrived, I had 2 free days before practicing with my shoulder for at least 3 hours a day everyday on the court, plus workouts. Our season began soon after and I made it through maybe 3 league games before things got horrible. I couldn’t sleep without aches waking me up in the wee hours of the night. There were good days and bad days, and on the worst days I felt like I couldn’t lift my arm - as far as volleyball was concerned I couldn’t. Not really sure how I managed to grit that out on the bad days - Advil was my best friend. I was doing anything and everything that I could to manage. Practice was miserable, every moment in the gym was met with incredible amounts of pain and volleyball became torture.
I was hesitant to continue playing and practicing, knowing that my shoulder was trying to tell me something. That I needed a break. There was a moment during a trip when my coach sat me down in our hotel room in Ukraine and gave me a speech on how I was recruited to this team to be the big scorer, that I need to play and how important to the teams success I am. That without me on the court we would lose. Pressure galore. This is where I should have put my foot down, but I didn’t, which brings me to my personal lesson on dealing with injuries before, during, and after they arise.
I said I was fine - I lied
1. LISTEN TO YOUR BODY!!!
I think as athletes it’s ingrained in us to push through pain, to physically stress our bodies to the limits. This is all well and good, but you need to be aware of when enough is enough. I wanted to please everyone, to be the ‘hero’, to be greater than my injury and help my team at all costs, but the only person I hurt was myself, in a BIG way. There will be external pressures from coaches, management and maybe your teammates, but that doesn’t matter, you are the only one who can own your pain and say no. Believe me when I say you have every right to.
Now, being a competitor myself I realize how difficult this is to do, because you are supposed to be able to handle anything. But if you are experiencing pain on a daily basis the further you push through it there is always the possibility of making things worse. Turning an acute injury into a chronic injury, a chronic injury into an overuse injury and could eventually lead you down the road to surgery or worse a career ending injury. Your body will tell you when it’s had enough, but you need to be aware of the signs and have the courage to step back.
(The only time I would make an exception to this is if it were finals or something - who doesn’t want to play at that point in the season! Just ask yourself, “Is this pain now worth it?”.)
So I had surgery in July, I failed to follow my own advice above, and ended up playing an entire season with a really damaged shoulder. I’m talking 2 partial tears in my rotator cuff for 50% damage, and a type 2 slap lesion. Basically they drilled some holes in my bone to help re-attach my damaged labrum and cleaned up some debris from my cuff.
- Side note I watched a video on youtube of slap lesion repair… not cute… As you all type into youtube to check it out.... be warned.
“My body could stand the crutches, but my mind couldn’t stand the sideline” - Michael Jordan
2. The pain of the setback hurts more than the injury itself
All injuries are different, for mine I wore a sling for nearly a month, was attached to a cooling unit for two weeks, and could not do a whole lot for myself. Looking back on it, it’s hilarious, but at the time it was a nightmare. My boyfriend had to feed me post surgery, he bathed me, clothed me, helped me balance when I began to move my arm for the first time, and tucked me in to my reclining chair at night. I was a baby all over again - and that was the easy part.
What no-one prepared me for is the amount of emptiness I have felt. Lost, lonely, useless - all things that I have felt so strongly during these first months of recovery. There was no team to guide me and rely on, and I couldn’t do the one thing that has been my outlet for 6 months. Crying has been a weekly event, it was just a matter of when I would break from any number of feelings; anger, frustration, guilt and loneliness or maybe all of them at once for the ultimate surprise. After all who was I if I’m an athlete that cannot compete, let alone get anywhere close to playing my sport for half a year.
I would go through the pain of surgery 10 times over before going through the hurt of being sidelined when my identity has been so entwined in being an athlete.
“An injury may prove a blessing” - Ovid
3. Challenge yourself to grow in different areas.
Playing high level volleyball for over 10 years I never have time off, time to be me and do the things that inspire me. Now I have 6 months, well 3 more to go. That was completely daunting at first, but having no schedule I have the freedom to make my own with things that I want to do. I’ve read a few books, took in a world class beach volleyball competition, spent extended periods of time with my family, did a spin class, tried yoga and meditation and began coaching. Woo!
For some that’s probably so lame, but for me it’s what I need, it inspires me, gives me fuel to keep going and has been a great lesson in learning that I am more than just an athlete. Embrace the opportunity to explore areas about yourself that take you outside of your comfort zone.
American sports psychologists Michael Gervais describes four phases of overcoming an injury and the importance of transitioning through each stage. “They have an identity of who they were before the accident. Then they become an injured athlete. After that they become an athlete with an injury. And the final phase is an updated understanding of themselves.” Injuries can help us reframe who we are by providing an opportunity to focus on our other skills. To me that sounds like a pretty cool recipe for returning to sport better than before, a well rounded person rather than just an athlete, capable of a anything.
4. Optimism is key. Focus on what you can control.
I think this speaks for itself. You have two choices:
1. Stay angry/frustrated/resentful about why this happened to you and live in a continual negative state. There have been so many days where I think about my injury and I become furious with how I was treated and how I was told that I was okay to keep playing, but these thoughts will get me nowhere. Living in a negative state of mind will do you absolutely no good, it will just amplify the bad. Why feel crappy about things when you have a choice? In almost everything you do you will have a choice.
Or 2. Stay positive and focus on moving forward. You can’t control the injury, but you can control how you react to it and I would rather focus on doing all that I can with a healthy mindset to allow myself the best chance of healing. This is the perfect chance for you to grow. Practice patience, practice staying positive through the bad, practice moving past anger and resentment and focus on you. Learn who you want to be on and off the court, do what makes you happy you’ve got a lot of time now, and spend time with the people you love.
“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying I will try again tomorrow.” - Mary Anne Radmacher
5. Stay Patient; Be Present
Shoulder rehab is so frustrating as I’m sure rehab for any injury is. For 3 weeks I was in a sling where I could only take my arm out to stretch my elbow and dangle my arm for 10 minutes in a day. After that I was doing these mind numbing assisted exercises for a few weeks. And now improvements are so small I barely feel like things are getting better. It’s hard to be patient, to trust that the body will heal itself as it knows and that this experience is something that should not be rushed. Give your body the time it needs to heal, or your risk recurring injury, doing further damage and delaying the process of getting back on the court.
An old coach used to always say “patience is a virtue” and this couldn’t be more relevant to me now. After all what’s the rush? I’ve got 3 more months of rehab vacation and I’m going to soak up every last moment.
“Your setback is your platform for your comeback”