If you go through life without a major injury or other serious challenge, then you will never be tested enough to reach your true potential and be the person you could be.
—My friend, KK
You identify yourself and foremost first as an athlete. At gatherings you introduce yourself as the triathlete, the Ironman, the mountain bike racer, the marathon runner, or the ski racer. It’s not as satisfying to introduce yourself as “a creative, intuitive dude who enjoys painting and sipping wine with my friends.” What street cred does that hold? There isn’t anything tough-sounding or awe-inspiring about that.
Your life centers on daily training, nutrition, and taking care of yourself. You are constantly looking forward, with anticipation, to achieving your next PR, clearing some incredibly technical section of trail, climbing the next 14er mountain on the list or relishing the next perfect powder day. You consider yourself strong, healthy and resilient.
Then, out of the blue, you are blindsided–injury comes knocking. Instantly, your life falls apart. You hear a loud snap, something has gone drastically wrong. Along comes denial and you convince yourself it isn’t that bad. But then reality strikes and you realize…you are hurt.
You wake up the next morning in pain and any semblance of your routine is shattered. No running shoes. No bike. No sunshine and cool breeze on your face. No skis. No trail beneath you. No friends to laugh with or train with.
You think, “What next? What am I going to do now?”
That’s usually when the downward spiral begins. You enter into a deep, dark, cascading hole, the depths of which few people will ever understand.
What is worth to you? Maybe you don’t look inside for worth. Perhaps you look only as far as your last training session, race result or PR. But your accomplishments aren’t the sum total of your identity; they are just one small part. As long as you look outside yourself your worthiness cup will be empty, draining through a leak in the bottom just as fast as you can fill it. As you as you fill your cup with a PR, it empties. When you are not able to achieve a new PR or accomplishment, you are left with an empty cup.
You have many innate gifts outside your athletic aptitude and accolades. Think intellect, creativity, empathy, etc. You may find it’s much easier to celebrate tangible results and victories than to honor your innate gifts (nobody is going to high five you for painting a beautiful flower); however, these gifts are no less worthy than your accomplishments. In fact, your innate gifts are the precise tools you need to make it through the maze of injury. In the end qualitative value far outweighs quantifiable accomplishments.
Recovery isn’t something you do; it’s something you become.
You aren’t lost, but you can’t be found in your running shoes, on a soccer field or on a bike.
Injury has the power to transform. Exercising areas of your mind normally dormant in athlete mode will strengthen your resilience.
Cherish your downtime. You don’t need to move and accomplish to live. Lay down. Breathe. Recovery is a process. Rebuilding awesome doesn’t happen overnight. At the end of your journey is an opportunity to become completely whole with or without your running shoes or a bike. Have patience. Cherish your time just being. When it’s gone you’ll miss your time to think and reflect.
- Make a list of 10 things you are, not including any physical descriptors. Hang your list somewhere so you will see it frequently.
- Find something to do that is bigger than you—perhaps volunteer work you can do from home with a local non-profit. In Austin we have a great resource, I Live Here, I Give Here.
- Keep open some other part of your life—another hobby, other groups of friends, something creative
- Write or journal and don’t worry about how it sounds. Get your negative thoughts out of your head; keep them from gaining toxicity.
- Redefine your personal mission to exclude your sport.
- Reach out to others who are going through a trying time.
- Make a list of activities that you’ve been missing out on because of training. Maybe a festival that has always conflicted with your favorite race. Maybe a weeknight concert that was always incompatible with your morning swim. Maybe just enjoy the simple pleasures of sleeping in.
Since you spend much of your time training and competing, you’ve developed an entire social network of like-minded individuals. Close, meaningful bonds form on long runs, rides, days of skiing and hiking.
When you are in the trenches with your training buddies, they learn all about your struggles, victories and the unsavory parts of your personality that rear up when you are grinding away the miles. These are tight bonds with dear people.
When the athletic dimension of your life is revoked and replaced with a void, you experience disconnection from friends, good times, laughs and social interaction in general. You’ll do just about anything to plug back into your network. Often you’ll even make decisions not in the best interest of your injury and recovery to experience connection again.
Connection is one of the most basic human needs. Without it you fail to thrive, grow, be seen, heard, and understood.
- Pick up the phone and call friends you haven’t talked to in a while. Maybe you’ll feel awkward explaining why you’ve lost touch. And you’ll have to talk about your injury. Don’t worry; honesty begets closer friendships.
Here is the breakdown of the most common issues I observed.
- What if I can’t compete again?
Competition is a test—a test of your training, your physical strength, your mental fortitude, your emotional resilience, and a means of comparing yourself to others. It’s a social outlet, a way to connect with your athletic community. It’s gritty. It’s painful. You love it and you live for it. The mere thought of never competing again makes you want to run to the nearest laundry basket, curl up inside, and pull a blanket over your head.
If most of your worth is derived from your competitive results, dig deeper. Even though it may not currently resonate, you are whole without your sport.
Ask: why aren’t you good enough the way you are right now?
- If I can’t work out I’ll lose fitness/get fat
Your body is accustomed to running at a certain speed and burning calories at a certain rate. Perhaps you work out so you can eat—without discretion. Maybe you eat when you feel sad. Injury drags a lot of baggage behind it that becomes like an annoying bad relative you can’t get rid of…talk about sadness and frustration. Your once strong, lithe body has been relegated to the sofa. Your daily activities now include watching Days of Our Lives and Dr. Phil.
Your fitness will return and your weight will stabilize quickly once you are fully healed. If you’ve been injured before, you know it’s much easier to regain lost fitness than to gain new fitness. It will come back once you are fully healed and able to resume your activities.
- I’m jealous of my friends
You can’t ride your bike. You can’t ski. Of course your friends are all athletes, and every time you see them the conversation inevitably ends up in a discussion of the last awesome piece of flowing single track or the last incredible powder day. You can’t look at Facebook without being inundated with workout updates. Meanwhile, you are in a close running for the gold in the Sitting Olympics. At first you tolerate it. Then the conversation feels more like a jab. You can’t participate because your last victory is old news. This is when resentfulness and jealousy tend to set in. You can’t play and you don’t want to hear about your friends going out to play, much less their race reports.
- I’m angry
All of a sudden every routine, social connection, focus and outlet in your life has disappeared. Vanished into thin air. What will your life will look like now? You get angry and resentful of your body for letting you down…for failing. As soon as you feel just healthy and healed enough, you get back in the pool for a swim because you are a fighter and you don’t give up. By the time you step out of the pool your shoulder hurts worse than ever, and that makes you more angry. Maybe you can participate, but not win like you used to. Maybe you can’t hang with your pals. Maybe you can’t even lace up. Regardless, you can’t do what you want. You keep fighting and climbing and clawing to get back to your life before injury, but the more you persist the further you drift. Everywhere you turn you encounter frustration.
The feelings wheel will keep you from falling into an anger vortex. It will help you name your emotions and feelings.Cramming emotions through an anger filter is a surefire way to waste energy. Identify your emotions and give them a voice. If your emotions have the proper outlet you will go a long way toward rebuilding you.
You used to cope with stress by putting in your earbuds, shutting out the world and going for a long hard run. Exercise was your best friend. It allowed you freedom, a space where you can clear your mind and expend some of your pent up frustration. It doesn’t talk when you’d rather just enjoy silence.
And then one day your coping mechanism has gone MIA. Training as you know it disappears and somehow a walk around the block with your dog doesn’t seem nearly as therapeutic as a hard run. You finish your walk likely with more frustration and anger than when you started. You have no reliable (or perhaps legal) means of coping with stress. Your short fuse seems to be getting shorter and shorter with no hope in sight.
Since moving in ways you prefer isn’t an option, take a look at what the options are. Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t. There is always something you can do. In order to see the options you have to be open to them.
You want to move to cope, but injury provides an opportunity to grow and discover other options to relieve stress.
Find something you CAN do (and enjoy doing)
Injury may be an impetus to find a new hobby. (For me it was photography.) Why spend energy looking into darkness when you can look at possibility and light?
Thank you notes
They ground you. They make you think of the have’s instead of the have not’s…the can’s instead of the cannot’s. They reaffirm your relationships and connections. Everyone loves to receive a thank you note; if you haven’t written one in a while, you’d be surprised how gratifying they are to write.
The strength of your relationships will give you the push to take the next step when you’d rather sit in a corner and stare. Writing thank you notes to people who help you places your focus on gratitude; gratitude begets optimism.
Creativity and Art Therapy
Through my research I discovered creativity is the number 1 ingredient in the recipe for success.
Creativity is like an eject button for pain.
Being a good athlete means you have the capacity to turn off emotion and ignore pain. Out of necessity, you may become disconnected from your emotions in the same magnitude (but different direction) you are connected with your body.
Injury provides time to connect and reflect. Injury can be one of your biggest gifts and best teachers.
Find time to write about your experience or do something creative. Invoking alternate parts of your brain will free you from the mental burden of physical limitation.
- Write down a list of things you can do, no matter how seemingly-small. Really push yourself here. Maybe you can’t run, but you can walk. Maybe you can’t walk, but you can do pilates or yoga on the floor. Maybe you can’t get up at all, but you can still exercise on your back.
- I mentioned injury as an opportunity to grow. Visualize being still, then write down the first 5 feeling this evokes. Now ask yourself why you feel that way.
- Reframe your frustration as opportunity.
- Ask yourself: Other than my sport, what fills my cup and brings me joy?
- Take your camera and photograph 10 things that make you happy. Post the photos around your house.
- Create and nurture a list of things that you are grateful for. A simple note app on your phone is more than sufficient to document happy vignettes.
At the end of the day, the great majority of us are very independent. We don’t want to ask for help. It’s weak to be vulnerable.
Sadness and despair have no place in your life and you certainly don’t want to reach out for help because your independence will be crushed. Your friends are busy people with lives and families and obligations of their own. Why would you want to bother them for a ride or a meal or a shoulder to lean on? You’ll just deal with it yourself because at the end of the day you are all you have. In the same way you depend on yourself to cross the finish line of a grueling race, you will depend on yourself to get through your injury, powering through it as independently as possible. Because why wouldn’t you be able to?
Nearly all people strive to be independent. It’s hardwired. But if your best friend asked for help, what would you do? You’d help. And if they didn’t ask for help when they needed it, you’d feel distant. Allow friends and family to help. 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 are injured, you may see your friends 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 ask for 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.
A little heads up: People tend to avoid what they fear. Every athlete’s worst fear is injury. You may find some of your friends kind of vanish, don’t check in too often and don’t stop by. That’s OK. I’ve noticed that my athlete friends can be among the least supportive because they don’t want to step into something they fear—injury. Don’t take it too hard, and don’t take it personally.
Society doesn’t do chronic well. It seems to me we have the attention span of a couple of months. You may get a lot of offers for help in the first few weeks, but that will likely slow down, and on occasion turn into “What? You’re still hurt?” as time goes by. Expect this pattern and work with it as best you can. Most of all, when you have a friend who gets hurt…be sure to offer help after everyone else has moved on.
If you have a big support system, everyone can do a little something to help and no one person becomes over-burdened.
Exercise – Ask for 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.
- 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 and starting writing.