It’s a pleasure to work on this blog series about injury with NAA mentors.
In this series, Network for Advancing Athletes mentors offer honest insight and advice for any injured athlete, recreational to professional.
In my last blog, I interviewed Network for Advancing Athletes founder and professional road cyclist, Amber Pierce. We talked about: her desire to create NAA; NAA mentors and how they work with female athletes; how the athletes benefit; and about her experience with and learning from injury.
Now I’m working on a three-part guest blog series for NAA on injury. The introduction to part 1 follows.
Network for Advancing Athletes mentors Courteney Lowe, Carrie Toleffson, Tina Pic, Annie Ewart, Alison Tetrick, and founder Amber Pierce share a love of their sport, a passion for guiding fellow female athletes, and all-too-much experience with injury.
Through traumatic brain injuries, an obscure vascular condition, and various fractures, these ladies have learned that injury is an unforgiving but rewarding teacher.
They have embraced one of the opportunities in injury: an opportunity to help others. Injury (or any life challenge) teaches the language of connection, compassion, and empathy. Struggling through and overcoming injury bestows an athlete with a deeper way of relating to other people who are going through a hard time.
In this blog series, Courteney, Carrie, Tina, Annie, Alison, and Amber graciously answered my questions, allowing them to reflect on their injury journeys with honesty, candor, and vulnerability, and allowing me to distill their wisdom into a form that will help you. This is the first of three blogs that I hope will help you feel not-so-alone and lost on your injury journey. In this blog we’ll talk about the biggest frustrations and challenges of being an injured athlete, how to work through them, and why working through them matters to you.
Although I’m interviewing world-class athletes, I’ve found through my research that makes no difference. All levels of athletes share similar challenges. I define an athlete as anyone who uses movement to connect with their life or themselves. Injury leads to restricted movement, and that’s where things come unglued.
Challenge number 1: Building your mental foundation for an optimal recovery
Injured athletes speak of frustration, impatience, disconnection, and anger or sadness–over and over. Whether you feel one or all of these feelings, know you are not alone.
Professional road cyclist and NAA mentor Alison Tetrick’s injury experience is almost universal. “I felt very alone. It wasn’t that people weren’t trying to help, but healing is such an individual process,” she said.
Alison is well aware that healing entails both the body and mind, and the body follows the mind. Athletes must invest time in both emotional and physical healing, but too often they neglect emotional healing. If you’re determined to come back from your injury mentally stronger with more resilience than ever, the biggest favor you can do yourself is to invest as much time (or more) in your attitude and mental state as you invest in your physical recovery.
Alison’s eloquent advice…”You have to want to heal, and you have to let yourself heal. No matter what people say or do, you have to make that decision yourself. At first, people reach out to you, but eventually, you are in a room, alone, and you have to decide what your outlook will be.”
Why it’s important to follow Alison’s advice
When Alison says “you have to decide what your outlook will be,” she’s talking about what I call the mental foundation of an optimal recovery. Your foundation anchors your mind so it doesn’t drift off into the land of impatience, frustration, and making bad decisions, such as returning to your sport too soon.
I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “You just need to have a positive attitude,” as if an attitude is something you can easily change. A positive attitude is the result of accepting your injury and setting new 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.
• Setting realistic goals will keep you motivated. Achieving them gives you hope.Read more about how to follow Alison’s advice in my blog, An Optimal Recovery in Three Steps.
Hope is the knowledge that if there’s one person in the world who can get you back to where you want to be, it’s you. Understand that your friends and family will help, probably a lot, but also understand that there will be a time when you will be alone, and that’s when it gets really hard.
Challenge number 2: Overcoming the frustration of inactivity and worrying about waning fitness
Nothing will make an athlete squirm more than the thought of injury and physical limitations. It’s what we fear most. NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Courteney Lowe says. “Having to sit all day was a challenge for me. I worried about the season and thought that I wouldn’t be able to get my fitness back in time.”
Courteney mentions two common injured athlete challenges: the simple, but distressing, requirement to be sedentary and losing fitness.
Maybe your habit is to cope with stress by shutting out the world and going for a long ride or run. Now your coping mechanism is gone, at the exact time when your pain and vulnerability are highest. You have no reliable (or perhaps legal) means of managing stress. Your goals are on hold. You don’t care to know your PR from the bed to the sofa, but that’s the only movement you’re allowed.
How can you turn your more sedentary recovery time into an opportunity for mental and emotional growth? And why does it even matter? From a physical standpoint, why is it important to fully recover before you return to the sport you love?
How to cope with being still and why it matters
Uncover your creativity. In finding and exercising your creativity, you’ll hone your most powerful injury-recovery-tool. I know what you are saying: “Heidi, you’re crazy! I don’t have a creative bone in my body. Not even one.” Frankly, I said those words before my injury. Believe me: your creativity does exist.
Why does creativity matter? For a while, or even the indefinite future, you can’t race; you can’t even train. It’s natural to perseverate on your situation and relentlessly focus on what you “should” be accomplishing with your sport. Unchecked, this mental state leads to spiraling negativity and often times bad decisions–sometimes very bad decisions. Don’t make your friends explain to you how stupid it is to run bleachers in an ankle boot.
Every time you exercise creativity you wear a path in your brain to tranquility and power. Creativity gives you something positive for your wayward brain to focus on, and just like training for your sport, you get better at what you practice. Also, just like training, some days you’ll feel like not showing up. That’s perfectly normal.
The more worn the path, the more you find freedom from: wondering what you’ll do with all the extra time on your hands; jealousy of your friends who can do [physically] what you can’t; and pent up stress and frustration.
Read more about how to awaken your creativity in my blog, Coping with Injury: What’s Your Most Important Tool?
Why it’s important to not worry about losing fitness and how to worry less
Creative endeavors will curb your worries and help you avoid bad decisions. Chronic injuries, in particular, are likely to re-occur unless ample rest, and perhaps a change in mechanics, is strictly adhered to. This takes patience–an abundance of patience. Learn how to find your patience and worry less in my blog, Three Steps to (Re)Finding Your Motivation After Injury.
Challenge number 3: Asking for help
Have you been in a vulnerable place and thought, “I don’t want to be a burden and ask for help. I hate asking for help”? I’ve been there. I’ve fiercely resisted help, thrashing around on crutches trying to carry a plate. Try this if you want a quick way to wear dinner on your feet.
NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Annie Ewart faced the same thoughts after her injury. She mentions a lack of independence and needing help with almost everything as two of her biggest challenges.
So what do we have to gain by being so fiercely independent? Actually…nothing. Ask yourself why you are so loyal to your rule of hating to ask for help. Does the answer make any logical sense? Is your rule truly serving you?
Why asking for help is one of the best things you can do
Nearly everyone strives to be independent, but if your best friend asked for help, what would you do? And if he or she didn’t ask when they needed help, wouldn’t you feel distant? Don’t try to do everything yourself. When your friends are in need, you find joy helping them. When you don’t allow them to help you, you deny them joy.
And how about strangers–like someone holding a door open for you? Consciously, you know that nearly everyone appreciates helping out. Why not be ok with that? Thank them and know that when you’re better, you’ll be paying it forward.
You can read more about the importance of asking for help in this blog I wrote.
We’ve talked about three of the most common challenges injured athletes face:
building a foundation for an optimal recovery; overcoming the frustration of inactivity and waning fitness; and asking for help. I hope, after our discussion of why facing these challenges matters and how to face them, you’re feeling less alone and lost. You now have the advantage of wisdom and direction plus time to practice new behaviors that will serve you for the rest of your life–long after your injury is healed.
In my next blog, I’ll discuss the social fallout of injury–jealousy, relationships with teammates, friends, and loved ones, and feelings of isolation.