You’re on the ground. You heard the noise — and so did everyone else nearby. They didn’t feel it though – that weird click/pop/shift that just happened. The strange and awful pain shooting down your leg. The instability. The fear of any and all movement. You know something bad just happened.
When you’re injured, a million things can go through your head. Not only the five typical stages of grief, but additional worries about how this affects your life, your friends, your team, your plans next weekend, your future, and your career as an athlete.
Does anyone even know that I’m hurt? Or care that I’m hurt? Are my teammates upset? Are they happy to get the extra playing time? Are they glad I’m not around?
Before you think too hard, focus on your body for a minute.
I’m definitely NOT a doctor. I’m not a therapist – physical or mental. I did, however, fully tear the ACL – and partially the LCL – in my left knee during a summer league game this past August and had the ACL reconstructed ten days later.
These are some of the thoughts and tools that I’ve collected over the course of my experience.
Talk about what happened
When you first feel like you might be injured, write things down and talk to someone about it. What did it sound like? How did it feel? What exactly happened that made it feel this way? These things are easy to forget, and can be remembered differently as time goes on. When you’re worried about your body and when you’re in pain, it’s easy to freak out and not be fully level-headed about what’s happening. Jot down some notes. Call your best friend and tell him or her what happened.
Get – and keep – someone else involved
I highly suggest bringing someone with you to everything, if at all possible. Are you first going to see the athletic trainer at the tournament? Go with a teammate. Visiting the orthopedic the next day? Bring a friend. Getting the results of your MRI? Have someone come with you.
Getting around is hard enough when you’re injured and in pain – especially if you’re unable to walk, drive, or carry things – but you’re also experiencing combinations of anxiety, fear, sadness. It’s easy to forget to bring your ID to the appointment or to grab your scripts on the way out of the office.
Once you start taking medication, your memory becomes unreliable. Make sure someone is there right before and after surgery so you don’t immediately forget all of the instructions that you are given. Make sure that buddy writes everything down, too (believe it or not, healthy people can also forget things).
Plan to stay somewhere comfortable
My mother’s house has few stairs, air conditioning, and the bathroom is right next to the bedroom. Oh, and it also has my mother. Much more comfortable than my hot, third floor bedroom in the middle of August. Sometimes there are people in your life that are simply good at being helpful – fetching things, knowing when you might need more to eat or drink, and reminding you to track your drug dosage or pill intake. Find those people. Even if you don’t have close family nearby, don’t be stubborn! Talk to a friend, relative, neighbor, or coworker who may be able to host you for a few days; it will be well worth it.
Find out who’s been there before
NOTE: Every injury is different. Every person is different. Every doctor and surgery is different. Every physical therapist and recovery is different. That being said, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel and find out the worst parts about being injured the hard way.
Find people who know what you’re going through (not necessarily professionals; people like you!) and create a forum to discuss things: what you should buy, how to get around the house, what’s normal and what’s not normal. Facebook group, group text, email chain, whatever.
If you’ve torn your ACL there are PLENTY of people to turn to for advice, help, and comfort – especially female ultimate players! One of the best things about common injuries is the incidental support group that forms. Not only did I get to hear from old friends who reached out to me, but I made new friends as well.
You play ultimate? You probably have a friend who already owns crutches. Borrow them; they might save you a buck.
You might also have friends who have already purchased other gear like braces and boots. An electronic ice machine is awesome – find one of those. They’re expensive, so borrowing is perfect.
Here are some things I found out about before my knee surgery that saved me a lot of time and misery.
When you sit on a toilet, your knees usually bend. If you’re stuck in a brace and/or are swollen straight, sitting on a toilet is nearly impossible. Get a small stool — or hell, a bucket — to put your surgery leg on while you sit.
Speaking of stool, opiates dry you out. If you’re taking hard pain killers, there’s a good chance you won’t have a bowel movement for a few days. You’ll want to take those softeners BEFORE you do. Just trust us on this one.
Detachable shower head
Super helpful in the first few days when you’re not allowed to get your incision wet. Allows you (or your friend) to wash your head and hair comfortably without standing. That stool can help with this stage as well.
Helpful once you ARE able to shower, but you’re so exhausted that you can’t stand without immediately wanting to lie down.
Find a bag that’s easy to carry with crutches. Purses don’t work. Get a backpack or a fanny pack or something that attaches to your crutches so you can actually carry stuff around. Oh, and pockets help, for sure.
Sleeping is going to suck – potentially for months. Get some pillows for not only your head and neck, but for under your back and between your knees. Body pillows are great. Pregnancy pillows are a real thing (Google them). Try to keep your hips and shoulders even and supported; you’ll understand why after a few days.
The support group
Now don’t forget to utilize that email group you set up. Are your bandages coming off earlier than the doctors said they might? Does something feel or look weird? Ask the group if anyone has had similar experiences. Need a pep talk? Ping them. Excited about your advancements in rehab? Share!
Learn from the experience
What does this tell you about yourself? Are you someone that people want on their team? How are you contributing? Are you still interested in being involved if you aren’t able to play?
What does it tell you about your teammates? Your team? Are they supportive? Is your team right for you?
Sometimes injuries can be defining moments for athletes – but those don’t need to be negative moments.
There is no good time to be injured. Trust me, I’ve thought about it a LOT. The earlier in the season you get hurt, the more you miss out. The later in the season, the more dramatic it feels. The off-season? You’re worried about the next set of tryouts. Try to think about when you’ll be recovered and the opportunities for you then.
Take care of yourself – physically and mentally. If you ache, spend the extra money and see a chiropractor or a massage therapist. If you need a day off (and can!), take one.
Being stuck on the sidelines may just make you a better sideline defender. Sticking nearer to your teammates could show you how to be a better teammate to each of them. Perhaps you’ll find your love (or hate!) for coaching or your passion for working with people or in medicine. Physical therapy may just teach you more about your body and how to take better care of it.
Being injured is tough and surgery can stink, but you could recover to be a stronger, more balanced, and self-aware athlete and teammate. And when your teammates or friends (or a stranger!) gets injured, your expertise and support will take them the miles that they can’t take own their own.