It’s been almost 9 years since I tore my ACL. I still remember the day I found out. The doctor casually stated that I had a complete tear in my Anterior Cruciate Ligament. I had only ever heard of people tearing their ACL’s so I figured I was in the clear.
It took me a second to clue in.
When I did, my mind went blank. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. Just bits of it.
8 month’s recovery…
Won’t ever be the same…
Looking back now my reaction seems unwarranted. But at the time, I felt like I had lost everything.
My mom drove me home. I hardly said a word. I didn’t cry until I was alone in my room.
All I could think was “Why me? Why now?”.
I had never had any serious injuries up until that point. A few minor ankle tweaks and sprained fingers. But never anything over a month of recovery.
I was on my way to bigger and better things. University was just around the corner and I was ready to show the volleyball world what I really had to offer. It didn’t seem fair.
The next year was rough. Rehab was taking longer than expected and frustration began to sink in. It wasn’t until spring that I was actually starting to feel strong and ready to play. But that was more than 16 months since the initial injury.
That year was hard. Way harder than I could have planned for. In losing sports I felt like I had lost my sense of identity. I lost the main thing which gave me self-esteem. Fortunately, I still had a way to let out my stress. By abusing some weights.
But that wasn’t enough. In my mind, I still lost the most important thing of all.
For everyone, but especially athletes, time is extremely valuable. Your athletic potential is finite and you only have so much of it before your “prime” passes. You can still become a great writer at 50. You cannot become a great athlete.
“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” – Seneca
In university, you only get 5 years to play and how you use each one is critical.
For the longest time, I thought my year of rehab was a loss. Lost time I will never get back and something pointless that should never have happened in the first place.
But then again, that was 18-year-old Derek, and now just over 8 years later – I know that’s not the case.
Yes, time was lost. Yes, it was unfortunate.
Was this rehab period a complete waste? No
Did I learn something from it? Yes
And could I have done more with this “opportunity”? ABSOLUTELY!
For any athlete out there regardless of whether you are currently healthy or injured, my hope here is to help you in two ways:
- Provide you with some useful lessons I learned along the way
- Give you a few daily practices you can implement to better deal with injuries
As athletes, we get so much attention in the physical aspects of rehab. But not nearly enough attention is devoted to the mental side of it.
I don’t claim to be a psychologist or psychiatrist, but what follows is simply what has worked for me and other people I know. Use this advice however you see fit.
Why do we get frustrated with injuries?
For some of you, your gut reaction probably tells you, “because they could be avoided!”
And yes, sometimes that’s true. But for anyone who has been a part of elite level sports for long enough, you know injuries are simply a part of the game. And anyone who goes through an entire career without an injury has either been dipped in the river Styx or they weren’t trying hard enough.
Often it can be the “what if’s” of an injury that cause the most frustration. But in my opinion, these are the real causes of frustration with injuries:
- They are unexpected and we cannot predict them
- They make us feel weak
- Rehab can be unpredictable
- They affect our plans and set back our progress
- They give others an advantage over us
- They seem unfair when they happen
It’s hard to recognize all of this in the moment of an injury. We want to be able to blame something or someone. But what good does that do? What are you accomplishing?
The sooner you accept your fate, the faster you can focus on your recovery. Bad things happen to all of us. Get over it.
Which leads nicely into my first lesson.
1) Frustration is normal
Over the years I’ve seen a lot of people get hurt. I’ve witnessed broken ankles, dislocated fingers, and numerous sprained ligaments. And with every injury dished out, I’ve also watched as frustration takes its tole. With all that I’ve seen, the only conclusion that I can safely come to is that frustration is normal. We all experience it and we are not special because of it. The sooner you recognize that your frustrations are not unique, the sooner you can figure out how to get over them.
2) Getting hurt is inevitable and you can either view it as a crisis or as an opportunity
I get it, being injured sucks. But there is literally nothing you can do to change what has happened. For most of us, our first instinct is to see the rehab process as a crisis. We miss out on time spent training, developing our skills, and improving all the physical aspects of our game.
But what if instead, we saw this is an opportunity? Take the time and energy that would have been spent on training and use it elsewhere.
Aren’t there some areas on the mental side of sports that you think you could improve? To me, this seems like the perfect time to work on the things you’ve been neglecting. Or, if it’s a lower body injury, do some heavy upper body workouts. At the very least, read that book that’s been gathering dust on your shelf. Time will keep ticking, but how you use is up to you.
3) We are only patient when we want to be
Many of us think we are patient. We shake our heads when someone zips past us on the highway. But then two days later, we’re screaming obscenities at the Dodge Caravan that refuses to break the speed limit. In other words, we are only patient when it’s convenient for us. Unfortunately, we cannot control our circumstances and life isn’t always convenient. Which means your ability to be patient even when it’s hard will become your most redeeming quality. Patience is the antidote for frustration, but the only person capable of writing you a prescription is you.
4) You have always been strong
When our bodies get hurt, it also seems like our memory takes a hit. At some point during the recovery process, we forget that we were once strong. We get so accustomed to having a weak limb that we feel like it will never be back to normal. Discouragement sets in and soon enough we assume all is lost.
But ask yourself this: before you got hurt, who got you to that level of strength? You did!
It may have taken some time to get there, but evidently, it was in your control and no one else’s. You may feel weak right now, but that’s only temporary. And the only thing that’s stopping you from getting back to where you once were – is YOU. You’ve done it before so you know it’s possible, just keep grinding.
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.” – Seneca
6 Daily Practices
Regardless of if you are healthy or injured, it is important to recognize that the best practices for dealing with an injury are the ones that you do every day. They are the ones which develop a more resilient, introspective, positive, patient, and mindful version of yourself. But if they are going to be effective, they must be done frequently and not just when they are convenient.
When it comes to improving myself in all of those areas, these are the daily practices that have worked best for me and reduced my chances of getting frustrated with the many challenges of life:
There is something amazingly therapeutic about writing our thoughts onto paper. I think we spend so much time in our own heads or listening to the opinions of others that our minds very rarely have a moment of clear thinking. Most of us cannot have a complex discussion in our own head – but by writing it down, we actually begin to create a clear narrative. Our thoughts start to make some sense, and in the end, logic tends to come forward.
Regardless of whether or not you are injured, take time each day to reflect and think about what really matters to you.
Never journaled before and not sure where to begin?
Here are 3 starting questions to journal about:
- What am I grateful for?
- What would make today a great day?
- How could I have made today better?
2) Anticipate everything going wrong. Be stoic.
Stoic philosophy holds to the idea that we should practice thinking and imagine the possibility of everything going wrong. We should prepare for the chance that our lives could be over tomorrow or that we will be in a car accident tonight. But in the case of surviving the car accident, we should think about how we would react. What the fallout would be and how we would rise from the ashes. If we can expect the worst-case scenario, we will know how to deal with it.
By thinking in this way, over time, unfortunate events will just become another normal part of life. We don’t shout at the rain because we know it’s just something that happens. Life problems should be treated the same way. Some people may think this is a pessimistic world view, but I would simply call it realistic. Not everything is going to work out perfectly for you. Injuries are just another part of being a daily athlete and you should treat them as such. We do this all the time in other parts of our lives. We buy insurance, we save money, and buy alarm systems for our homes. We are planning for the worst-case scenario. But as athletes, why don’t you plan for everything to go wrong?
This stoic worldview gives you a greater sense of self-confidence because you know that whatever comes your way, you will be able to handle it and it will not frustrate you because you expected it to happen. In addition, this also breeds a greater sense of gratitude. If you know every practice could potentially be your last, you will be far more likely to appreciate it and be thankful for the opportunity.
3) Small wins
On the road to recovery, it’s easy to stay focused on the end goal and to want to be back at full strength as soon as possible. We set end dates based on the doctor’s orders and let nothing stand in our way. It’s a 3-month recovery and nothing else.
Then 3 months later hits and you aren’t yet where you thought you’d be. You feel like a total failure and wonder what these past 90 days have been for. Instead, I advise you set up small goals. Little wins along the rehab journey that keep you moving. Giving up your crutches should be strived for and touching your toes again should be celebrated. Set up small wins in your rehab and you’ll find the whole process to be a lot more rewarding – even if it takes longer than expected.
4) Use this as a wake-up call
Businesses don’t often make drastic organizational changes until their stocks are plummeting, teams don’t fire their coaches unless they are constantly losing, and humans don’t change their habits until it’s affecting their health. A crisis can often be a wakeup call and a chance for change. I mentioned before that often injuries simply “just happen” and they are out of our control. But we all know that isn’t always the case. Injuries can be caused by muscle imbalance, a lack of overall strength or improper technique.
Study your injury and figure out why it’s happening, what could have caused it, and how you can avoid it in the future.
5) Practice Patience
The problem with most people who are trying to become more patient is that they end up practicing it at the wrong times. They say to themselves before a practice, a big game, or some other important moment…
“I’m going to be more patient today”
Then all of a sudden something unexpected happens, their emotions start to take over and they fall into their old habits. Frustration takes over and patience is nowhere to be found.
But what were they expecting?
Instead what they should be doing is practicing patience when it’s easy. When the inconsiderate BMW cuts you off don’t honk and scream at them – take a second and breathe. Or better yet, next time your friend leaves you alone at the dinner table, don’t reach for your phone. Sit there in silence and look around the restaurant. Enjoy the moment for a change. Push away impatience and let it pass. It’s really not that hard, you just have to practice. As you do this in the easy moments, you’ll get better at recognizing when impatience arises and what causes it to bubble up. Over time, you’ll be able to catch yourself in the bigger moments and not let yourself lose control. You will become more patient in all aspects of your life.
Being able to recognize our emotions and feelings as they come and go is an ability that many of us struggle with. It’s easy to look back and deconstruct what happened and figure out what emotions we couldn’t contain. But in the present moment, very few of us are actually able to recognize how we feel. A daily mindfulness practice is intended to help develop this ability. By sitting in silence, focusing on our breath and letting thoughts come and go – we begin to understand where they come from and how to change them. This can carry over into our everyday lives and soon enough we start to understand why we get impatient, frustrated, or angry. This even develops our ability to see a certain situation, anticipate the emotional response it may bring forward and instead, choose a more positive response.
If you are interested in learning more about mindfulness, check out the links below:
Meditation App: Headspace (10 Free trial)
Short Article: Patience and Meditation
Great Book: Mindful Athlete – George Mumford
The honest truth
In the end, there are no quick fixes for dealing with injury frustration. I know it’s probably not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. You simply have to be patient, persistent, and realistic about your recovery process. Not everything is going to go as expected and that’s completely normal. But you and I both know, you can handle it. You are stronger than you think, and this is not a crisis but an opportunity. Your will is being tested and the only person who can let you fail is the one staring back at you in the mirror.