“Before my injury I was a soccer player. Now, because of my injury, I’m an athlete.” ~KK, professional soccer player
…and human being who brilliantly copes with chronic injury
I’ve been injured since November 2010–so, nearly a decade–but who’s counting? I’m not. With more than a few setbacks and bonus surgeries along the way, I’ve improved beyond the expectations of my rare and complicated diagnosis–arthrofibrosis in my knee.
I do know I’m getting better and haven’t yet reached my full potential. I don’t know when I’ll be normal–or rather what my new normal will look like. Was my 8th surgery in February 2014 my last? I certainly hope so, but there are no guarantees, even if I continue to follow directions to the letter. Frankly, I’d be rich if I had a dollar for everyone who has asked.
I’m happy with general positive progress, and can live with the uncertainties. People ask when I’ll be normal again and I say I have no idea, but I’m slowly getting better.
How could I plug away for years without a definite end in sight? I made a conscious choice to focus on achieving an optimal recovery instead of how fast things progress.
This blog is for the seriously and/or chronically injured athlete whose injuries defy easy fixes. Simple injuries can often be solved without rearranging your brain and your life.
What do you need to do to achieve an optimal recovery from chronic injury? This subject could fill a whole book. In this blog, let’s build the mental foundation of your recovery.
Step 1–Accepting your injury
What to do
Once your diagnosis or situation is determined, get through the grieving process.
It’s healthy and normal to grieve the loss of your sport and life as you knew it. It’s also perfectly normal to waver between the stages from day to day or hour to hour. You may face dark days, but I guarantee you will feel calm acceptance if you honestly travel through the 5 stages.
Why accepting your injury matters?
• It’s emotionally and spiritually taxing to convince yourself an issue doesn’t exist or will resolve on its own. Remember when you were a kid playing with a beach ball in a pool? You tried to hold the beach ball under water, but you’d get worn out forcing the ball down. Eventually, its buoyancy launched it sky high, usually hitting your face. Don’t waste your emotional energy forcing the grieving process down.
• Accepting that everything is not according to plan and you can’t do what you want allows you to set new, more appropriate goals.
• Accepting that you’re not 100% but waking up every day and giving the best you have on that day sets you up for long-term success.
• Acceptance doesn’t mean being resigned to a life surfing the sofa. Continue working toward being as healthy and strong as you can be at each stage of your recovery.
• Accepting that you’ll have to do more than the average person to achieve a better than average result means you get to invoke all the focus and discipline [you already have] that made you an athlete.
• My grieving started when I went back to my apartment for the first time post-injury. I stood in my living room looking at my Nordic skis and mountain bike thinking, “my life is never going to be the same.” My friend Kelsey came out, looked at me, and said the most perfect thing anyone could have said at the moment, “It’s OK. I’m here.” I had a full-on-shaking-uncontrollably-breakdown in his arms. I soaked his sleeve with tears and I’m sure snot. But once that wave of grief retreated, every part of me felt stronger. I knew that even if my life wasn’t going to be the same, I would be OK. In order to move to step 2, I had to go through step 1. I had to go through a breakdown before I could move forward.
Step 2–Set reasonable short and long-term goals with your physical therapist and doctor
What to do
• Your recovery is not someone else’s responsibility; take charge.
• Ask your physical therapist and doctor what you need to do to achieve optimal recovery, then work with them to set both short and long-term goals.
• Have a clear vision of what is expected of you in and out of physical therapy.
• Understand your injury. Ask for an anatomy lesson or read an anatomy book. Don’t use Google to second-guess your physical therapist, but do use Google to learn the basics of your injury and ask better questions.
• Periodically check in to readjust if necessary.
• Be flexible and willing to update your goals. Don’t get irritated if you don’t reach your goals. Readjust, set a new goal, and carry on.
• Take full responsibility for everything good and bad that happens on your journey.
Why setting reasonable goals matters
• Setting realistic goals will keep you motivated.
• Achieving them gives you hope.
• Help yourself out by preparing for setbacks and bad days that will happen along the way.
• Most people don’t handle stress very well. If you don’t, you’re in good company. Find out everything you can do to master your stress and use it as a motivator. Why? If you fall down every time you have a setback, you’ll never get anywhere.
Step 3–Welcome the challenge with a positive attitude
What to do
• Understand that re-mastering movement patterns will require thousands of tedious exercise repetitions that serve as your foundation for rebuilding. Embrace wall slides, or whatever your least favorite mind-numbing exercise may be. Be persistent.
• Remember: Big gains come from an accumulation of small gains. All those tedious exercises will lead to big gains.
• Focus on what you can do. A fellow Steadman Clinic patient told me, “I love to be way out in the middle of nowhere, but I haven’t been able to ski for 5 years. So, I learned how to hunt. That achieves my goal of being in nature while respecting my injury.”
• Be flexible and learn to compromise. Be OK with substituting new activities for old ones.
• Learn something new. Another fellow Steadman Clinic patient said, “I wasn’t going to lie on the sofa for months, be pissed off, and do nothing. I decided to learn how to play guitar.” By the way, she’s turned into a darn good guitar player, and graduated from her living room sofa to open mic nights. Maybe guitar isn’t your thing, but you’ve always wanted to learn a foreign language. Now is the time to start.
• Be appreciative and respectful of your care team by making sound decisions.
• Don’t think of the problem. Think of the solution.
Why a positive attitude matters
• Ambition, determination, and attitude are all choices–and they all lead to hope.
• Hope is the knowledge that if there’s one person in the world to get you back to where you want to be, it’s you. It also means you’re willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
Everything you need for a positive attitude is already inside you. How do I know? I bet you’ve had some gritty-not-pretty training or racing adventures. Injury recovery is the same. You have to dig deep, put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving toward the finish line. Yeah, I get it–the injury finish line isn’t as fulfilling, and certainly not as Facebook-worthy, as the Ironman finish line, but you didn’t pick this challenge, it picked you. Plug away. You will get there. I promise.I’ve broken down the foundation of your recovery journey into 3 steps–know where you are (acceptance) and where you want to go (goals), and your positive attitude will carry you. Once you reach step 3, start over with step 1. Rinse and repeat. Embracing this formula will determine whether you have an average or optimal recovery.
Are you willing to settle for an average recovery or are you willing to do everything you can to have an optimal recovery? Now that you’re armed with a formula, I believe you can be at the successful end of the bell curve–an outlier on your recovery. You may even uncover a stronger and more dedicated athlete than you knew existed.
After reading this, I noticed that more times than not, I have been going about my recovery in the wrong way. I wouldn’t say I have a bad attitude, but I am so worried about what is going to happen 12 months from now (when I am supposed to be able to return to playing), rather than focusing on how I can better myself now. It’s frustrating for me because with recovering from a hamstring tear, I have literally been restricted from doing anything, including any type of upper body workout. So I have been frustrated with finding things to do to make myself stronger when I can step back on the field. This helped me realize that what I need to be strengthening is my mentality and how I perceive my injury. How am I going to use this injury to my advantage and turn it into a positive? That is the question I will start asking myself other than, why me?
Getting stuck in the what’s-going-to-happen-in-the-future cycle dulls our mind and our motivation. Is it your PTs who have said no working out? If so, by all means, follow their guidance. Right now, you can work on honing your sharpest weapon…your mind. Start with creativity…