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 watched their friends and teammates train while they struggle to get out of bed. They’ve had to jettison their independent streaks and accept help, and they’ve had to manage other’s expectations of their personal recovery journeys.
Navigating jealousy, relationships with teammates, friends, and loved ones, and feelings of isolation can drain your spirit. But, an empty, lifeless spirit doesn’t have to be your destiny. Struggling begets wisdom; what these ladies have learned about the social fallout of injury will help you.
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 second of three blogs (you’ll find part 1 here) that I hope will help you feel not-so-alone and lost on your injury journey. In this blog we’ll talk about the wedge injury drives between you and your friends and teammates, how to work through the disconnection, and why working through it matters to you.
Although I’m interviewing world-class athletes, I’ve found through my research that it 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: Overcoming jealousy: when your friends are racing and training but you’re not
NAA mentor Annie Ewart’s recount is almost universal: “It was extremely hard being sidelined with an injury and watching my teammates racing and doing so well. Of course I was super pumped for them, but I was really bummed that I wasn’t there killing it with them. It was really hard. I actually didn’t realize how hard it was until I went and watched them in person. This is when I realized that my season was over, and there were a lot of tears. I couldn’t even bring myself to watch day two of the racing. It was too hard. I didn’t expect this reaction, but I learned that it was completely normal. In hindsight I think it was good that I felt this way, because it meant that this is what I really wanted to do.”
It’s the J-word. Jealousy. Why is there so much shame surrounding jealousy?
During a seminar I hosted for injured athletes, an attendee teared up as he spoke of jealousy he’d be harboring for many months. He felt like a terrible person for feeling jealous, and squirmed as he talked more about it. I encouraged him to keep talking because, sitting in the front row, he couldn’t see all the heads in back of him nodding in solidarity.
If you’re one of many injured athletes feeling jealous of your friends and teammates, stop beating yourself up. Jealousy in moderation is a perfectly normal reaction. Problems arise when the jealousy is excessive or prolonged.
If jealousy hijacks your thoughts and continues to grow to the point you can’t think about other things, consider seeking professional help. For our discussion, I will focus on managing moderate jealousy.
Why it’s important to move away from jealousy
Jealousy is typical, but wallow too long and you risk getting stuck in soul-sucking emotional quicksand. What we focus on grows. In order to move forward on your recovery journey, you must also move away from jealousy.
Jealousy means you’re thinking of what you cannot have. You lose focus of what is. Suffering is the inability to accept what is. Suffering wastes energy. The longer you deny your current limitations, the more angst you will experience.
How to move away from jealousy
The key to moving beyond jealousy is acceptance, but in order to reach acceptance you must grieve your injury.
It’s healthy and normal to grieve the loss (whether permanent or temporary) 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 your goal of calm acceptance requires you to honestly travel through the 5 stages.
Read more about how to reach acceptance in my blog, An Optimal Recovery in Three Steps.
We can all learn from NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Amber Pierce’s wisdom on jealousy. She said, “Several years ago, this would have been really hard. But over the years, I’ve realized that I enjoy celebrating the success of others more than I enjoy being jealous of it. Moreover I’ve realized that the jealousy is silly, because it’s not as if there aren’t going to be bike races when I’m healthy again. When I remind myself that there isn’t a fixed number of races in the world, and that I’ll have plenty of opportunities to go for it once I’m healthy and fit again, I can relax and truly feel happy for my teammates and friends who are racing and finding success. “
Amber was lucky. She enjoyed a full recovery and returned to racing. Not everyone will make a full physical recovery, but we all can and must recover from jealousy.
NAA mentors aren’t short on insight. I think you’ll appreciate mentor and Olympic runner Carrie Tollefson’s approach to being sidelined when her teammates were hitting the track. Carrie said, “There were times it was really frustrating but also, it helped keep me motivated. I am not the type of person to dwell on the negative so I tried to be the best teammate I could be but then use it to fuel me. Yeah, it stinks when your training partners are healthy and gearing up for races you are supposed to be in, but such is life. Figuring out how to stay in it when times are tough is the best way to come back even faster.“
Challenge number 2: Accepting help
The majority of athletes are fiercely independent and are not comfortable asking for help. Even worse, injury means disconnection from the training groups and teammates who ought to be your safety net.
Not surprisingly, three NAA mentors had nearly identical responses to my question, “When your friends asked if you needed help, what is your usual response?”
NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Alison Tetrick said, “I always said I was ‘fine.’ We are intense and independent people, especially as athletes. We want to handle things on our own, but we do need to admit when we need help, even if it is just for accountability or not to be alone. If I sensed that my family doubted that I was ‘fine,’ I would become defensive and bolt the opposite direction. It took me being honest with myself and them when I needed to seek medical help as well as to have accountability for my feelings of darkness and inadequacy.”
NAA mentor and professional road cyclist Courteney Lowe said, “I would usually say I was absolutely fine (until emotions took over and I started bawling).”
Why accepting help is one of the best things you can do
After hundreds of hours interviewing injured athletes, I discovered that asking for and accepting help is a universal challenge. If you’re a card-carrying member of the anti-help camp, you aren’t alone, but perhaps you should consider how much richer your life could be by switching camps.
Most people are hardwired to be independent. Our kneejerk “I’m fine” when a loved one asks does nothing to serve us. But it’s fighting our wiring to accept help. I mentioned this in Part 1; it’s worth repeating: Don’t try to do everything by yourself. When your friends are in need, you find joy helping them. When you don’t allow them to help you, you deny their joy.
When you’re injured, you may see your friends and teammates less often. When you ask for and accept help, you maintain the bond that may otherwise fade. Remember that when someone offers you help and you decline, they are not likely to offer again. It’s just human nature to not seek out a rejection. When you accept help you strengthen bonds, which ultimately become even more gratifying when your friend someday asks for help in return.
What are you afraid will happen when you accept help? We build community and friendships to help one another. Why would you build a support system and not use it? Life is long; everyone needs help sometimes.
You can read more about the importance of accepting help in this blog I wrote.
How to ask for and accept help
- Make a list of all the things you find difficult to do (grocery shop, cook, laundry, take care of your dog).
- The next time someone calls and asks if you need help, say yes and refer to the list you just made from the exercise above.
- Make a list of all of your close friends and family members
- Reach out to three of them and ask them to help you with one of the items from the list above.
- Buy–or better yet make–thank you cards for all the people who have helped you and starting writing.
Carrie Tollefson offers a good way to start asking for help. She said, “I would usually say, ‘I could use a training partner in the pool this week if you have an off day or easy day.’ If someone could help me through a workout that was fun.”
Challenge number 3: Managing your relationships–with significant others, friends, family, and team management
Injury is the Energizer bunny of new challenges. If the obvious physical challenges of injury aren’t enough, we have to manage how, in our unbalanced state, we interact with significant others, friends, family, and team management. We can’t manage our own emotions let alone other’s reactions to our injury.
One NAA mentor spoke for nearly every injured athlete when she talked about her relationship with her significant other. She said, “I wasn’t happy with myself – feeling unfit, sluggish, and generally irritable. When you’re not happy with yourself, it’s hard to be happy at all. I became difficult to be around, and had a much shorter fuse. I was really struggling internally, and trying not to let that affect our relationship as much as it was affecting me. That effort took enormous energy and made what is usually a wonderful, easy relationship feel like hard work.”
Describing how she handled interactions with friends and family, another mentor said, “I withdrew. Even normal emails with friends and interacting via social media became difficult. I probably could have used a good shoulder to cry on, but didn’t want to be a drain.”…“It was really hard to even discuss the injury with my parents. They don’t always understand why I race in the first place, and they hate to see me injured.”
This last comment highlights a particularly vexing problem that arises with injury. When people close to you don’t understand why you do what you do, don’t be surprised if they struggle mightily with your injury and your desire to get back in the game. Trust me. I’ve been there.
Why honest communication matters
You all probably have acquaintances who ask about your progress and don’t seem to really care what the answer is. In this section, I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about people who are dear to you–people who matter.
Those closest to you want to connect with you and help you through your darkest days, but they may not know what to say or what you need. Don’t expect people to read your mind and then bark at them when they get it wrong. Instead, gently guide them toward how they can best understand what you’re going through so you can be supported how you’d like.
You can also forward them the link to my blog, How to be a Good Friend to the Injured Athletes in Your Life.
While you may feel like deactivating your Facebook account and all the enthusiasm you can muster is barely enough to spend the evening in flannel pajamas on the couch, force yourself to reach out. Every conversation gets easier to tolerate. You may even find yourself in a position of teaching your friends and family a thing or five about patience and grace.
We’ve talked about three of the stickiest parts of injury: overcoming jealousy; accepting help; and managing your relationships. Now you know you’re not alone wondering how to get unstuck, and you have guidance and wisdom to help you keep moving forward through the social fallout of injury.
In my next blog, I’ll discuss post injury attitude, managing movement restrictions, and maintaining motivation.