I’ll never forget the day it happened – the day that literally changed my life. I was a freshman in college and was at my first gymnastics practice in over two months (due to having mono). It was Dec. 30, 1992. Our competition season was starting in three weeks. I was on the uneven bars warming up, but because I had missed two months of practice I had to take out one big skill and rearrange the others. As I warmed up I kept feeling like I was going to peel (fly off the bar). I was right! On my next turn, as I let go of the high bar I flew right over the low bar. Subsequently, I was in a handstand position falling straight to the ground from about 10 feet up. It all happened so quickly, but I remember thinking “tuck your head and land on your back” and then “I don’t think I’m going to make it past my head.” When I landed, my elbow caught my fall as I went to my back. Consequently, my elbow was now down at my wrist.
The doctor in the ER told me I would be back in six weeks. SIX weeks! That sounded like an eternity. Unfortunately, he missed a huge bone chip, so six weeks turned into four surgeries and 13 months of immobility.
I was in the training room twice a day, every day for months. Therapy consisted of one person lying across my chest, one lying across my legs while the PT got up on the table and put her body weight on my arm to try to get it to move. I took pain meds and soaked it in the hot whirlpool before starting out, but nothing helped. I call it my hell year.
And that was the easy part.
Injury is one of the most traumatic things that can happen to an athlete. It turns your world upside down. Emotionally you are a mess. It’s like you wake up one day and you no longer know who you are or what your purpose is. Sound dramatic? Well, welcome to the mind of an injured athlete!
The hardest part was definitely the psychological impact the injury had on me. Losing my identity as a gymnast. Losing my support system. My teammates, coaches, friends and family were great and all right by my side for my first surgery, but as the novelty wore off so did their support. This wasn’t their intention or their fault, but it was the reality. I had to put up the fight all by myself. I started experiencing depressive symptoms but had no idea that was what was happening. As I started recovering, I had a lot of fears. I was afraid of the skill I got hurt on and I was afraid of re-injuring myself. I was afraid I’d never be as good, that I’d be replaced. I think most of all I was afraid I would disappoint myself, my coach, my family.
After years of studying sport psychology and years of working with athletes, I’ve discovered that all of these feelings and struggles are common. And unfortunately, no matter what level, almost always part of the process.
Nate Jackson, former 49ers practice squad player and Denver Bronco, knew this feeling all too well. In his book he wrote, “Maybe my football days are over. My shoulder heals very fast, but my mind is a mess. I sit around in my bedroom and have panic attacks. I scribble in my journal, trying to exorcise the demons, summon the angels, build future mental stairways…”
The worst part is most athletes don’t know what is happening to them. Nobody tells you what to expect or how hard it is going to be—or that you might try to push everyone who hasn’t gone through an injury away. All of this is common, even normal.
From the time you get injured until after you are practicing and even competing again, you go on an emotional roller coaster. Your mood is most often dependent on how your injured body part feels that day. If it is sore or painful, you are in a bad mood, frustrated, and angry; if it feels good, you are encouraged, motivated, maybe even excited. And the roller coaster begins.
When doctors are explaining what to expect post-surgery (or even if surgery isn’t necessary), athletes only hear part of it. If the doctor says typical recovery is six- to nine-months athletes only hear six months. Then, you often think you will beat the odds and will be back in five months. At four months, when you aren’t close to “playing” again the emotional roller coaster starts again. But, you might be right on track—on track for a six-to nine-month recovery!
Athletes would benefit greatly from constant reassurance from their healthcare team (docs, PT’s, AT’s, Chiropractors). You want to know how you are progressing and if you are on-target for your return. It is also important to understand (& to be told) that setbacks or plateauing is normal and expected.
Easier said than done, but one of the most important things athletes can do is to trust the process. Injury is not just a single event but instead a journey to recovery.
Although your road to recovery is likely going to be hard, there are several strategies that are very powerful in helping you face the challenges that come up along the way. Strategies to help you be psychologically strong and mentally ready for your return as soon as your body is physically healed.
I discuss these strategies along with common reactions athletes have to injury in the two short videos at the bottom of my blog.
Embrace the suck, prepare for the journey, and hold on for the ride of your life.