Coping tips for injured athletes

I’ve struggled at times to know how to approach this elbow injury of mine.

It is a minor injury that was fixed with a quick surgery that will leave me stronger than ever. It is a crappy, unfair injury caused by the most mundane activity known to man (walking out my front door) that has caused me real pain and suffering. It is a small thing compared to what we’ve been through over the past three years, during which we have lost three parents, Steve has deployed once, and I have suffered two other equally random injuries. It is the straw that broke the camel’s back, considering all that has come before it. It is all of these things. It is none of these things.

What I know for sure: For an athlete of any kind, an injury represents a loss. That’s what strikes me most when I read through all the comments from all the athletes who have responded to Motivational quotes for injured athletes, which is by far the most-read post I’ve ever written for this blog. An injury represents a loss of opportunity and a loss of a sense of identity and a loss of a source of strength and support. It takes away your confidence, your mojo and your standing Saturday-morning plans, all of which requires you to spend time recovering emotionally as well as physically. And like any loss, it needs to be grieved and mourned and honored and reconciled before the griever can continue life as usual.

The trick is to find a way to mourn and grieve and honor your loss while also keeping it in perspective, and without going to the dark side. In other words, acknowledging that you are, in fact, going through something hard, and honoring your feelings of anger and fear and loss, while realizing that the correct response is not analysis or judgement but instead just self-compassion.

Wouldn't everyone rather look at this post-op picture of Lindsay Vonn?

Wouldn’t everyone rather look at this post-op picture of Lindsey Vonn?

I can’t quite bring myself to post photos of me smiling and giving a thumbs-up in a splint post-surgery. I’m instead going to share a few lessons I’ve learned about coping with injuries.

Accept yourself as you are right now. It helps me to remember that I’m not only rad when I’m skiing powder in Austria, but also when I’m reading a book on the couch. It’s also helpful to remind myself that it’s OK to feel sad and angry and a little bitter–that I’m not choosing to feel this way, but can choose how to respond to it.

Practice self-compassion. I’ve been a huge proponent of self-compassion–the act of talking to yourself gently during times of trouble, as you would to a friend–ever since writing Go easy on yourself: Cutting yourself a break once in a while can help you cut weight
for WeightWatchers.com’s men’s site last year. It’s a hugely helpful life skill that’s especially important during tough times.

Focus on recovery. Your doctor will give you instructions. These instructions, whether they are “PT three times a week for a month” or “Try not to move too much until you see me again,” are your new workouts. Treat them with the reverence you would a long run, or a difficult skiing drill, and believe that treating them this way will speed your recovery. For me, that means taking things very, very slowly until my first post-op doctor appointment later this week.

Do what you can. I feel lowest when my friends are skiing or running or otherwise playing outside in ways that I can’t yet. I feel highest when I’m thinking about the things I can do–such as swim, in just a few weeks, which sounds simply amazing to me right now. And though they were never my thing before this injury, I’m also looking forward to taking a few spin classes during my recovery. And of course, I’m taking some solace in the fact that can still work in the clinic or man the radio to stay involved with the ski patrol.

Connect with others who have coped with similar injuries. In 2010, after breaking my right wrist, I connected with Gary Anderson, who found this blog after suffering a nearly identical wrist break (during the same ice storm!), wrist surgery and post-surgery recovery to mine around the same time. Anderson, also a runner, is race director of the Clifton Caboose 5K, and after months of commiserating about our injuries, we met at the race later that year. While recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery in 2011, I found it helpful to follow pro skier Michelle Parker’s recovery from the same injury. I’m looking forward to meeting others who have fractured olecranons and had open-reductions with internal fixations to fix them (Anyone out there break their elbow and get it put back together with a chunk of metal? Anyone?).

Posing with Gary Anderson post-race.

Posing with Gary Anderson post-race in 2010.

Surround yourself with positive reinforcements. I’m a big fan of quotes that nail the way I’d like to feel. Right now, these two from Mary Anne Radmacher are my favorites:

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, ‘I’ll try again tomorrow.'”

“Speak quietly to yourself and promise there will be better days. Whisper gently to yourself and provide assurance that you really are extending your best effort. Console your bruised and tender spirit with reminders of many other successes. Offer comfort in practical and tangible ways — as if you were encouraging your dearest friend. Recognize that on certain days, the greatest grace is that the day is over and you get to close your eyes. Tomorrow comes more brightly.”

Find out how others have coped. Here’s where you come in: What’s your best post-injury coping mechanism?

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Coping tips for injured athletes

  1. Alistair Manning

    Hi Amy, I empathise with you. You’ve had it so tough of late. I hope you can stay positive and keep posting. I too am suffering a debilitating knee injury and considering arthroscopy. Running is out for the forseeable future. We have to keep focused on the bigger picture, and as you say, accept ourselves for who we are now. Keep strong x

  2. Heather S

    Wow, I can’t believe I stumbled upon this post. Couldn’t have been better timing. I was googling “motivation for injured athletes” because I really am struggling. I tore my MCL last Thursday; this is the third time I have injured my left knee. I am an avid runner, and had a huge, very difficult 25k trail race coming up that I was working my butt of for. I felt strong, competent. And now I feel broken. Last weekend I had a grueling 10 mile hill run planned. This week my biggest accomplishment was being able to go up stairs. I feel so defeated.
    Thank you for this post. I have copied and pasted the quotes from the end because they seriously brought tears to my eyes. Nothing is worse than an athlete having part of their identity taken away because of injury. It’s nice to know there are people out there who truly can relate.

    • Thanks for your comment, Heather. My heart goes out to you. Thanks for reminding me that I’m not alone in this, and take care of your (still strong, and mentally tough!) self.

  3. My injury coping mechanism is always to do things I was too busy to squeeze in when I was running. Exploring Virginia wineries, going to get my nails done with my girly girlfriends, brunch, sleeping in and cooking/reading more. Also doing something for others can really help take the focus off yourself, if/when you feel like wallowing.

    • So far, I have gotten a pedicure, read three books that have been on my to-read list and made lots of plans to drink wine and eat tasty meals with friends once I’m more mobile. You’re right–it helps immensely! Thanks for the good suggestions, and kind words!

  4. I’m really sorry to hear about this and I do understand how tough it can be emotionally. I really applaud you for blogging about it and being aware of your feeling rather than trying to deny them, or one the opposite end, going to the “dark side”. The time will pass quickly and you will be out there again, stronger than ever!

  5. Right on, Amy.

    It sucks to be injured, and sure, we can say, “Well, at least I’m not [stick in the subject of your favorite Sally Struthers telethon cause].” But it’s still crummy for you. My tactics in situations like yours are similar to what others have already mentioned: give myself time to grieve the injury and what it means (whole DABDA kit and kaboodle); readjust; and rekindle/find other interests. It’s not always easy, and some days are easier than others. Best wishes to you!!

  6. chasingthekenyans

    i’ve been going thru my first injury in a long time (can’t remember the last time i had a setback). it sucks! i’ve been pushing through it stubbornly which clearly hasn’t helped. i’m trying to be smart now… “had i just rested 5 months ago maybe it wouldn’t be so bad now…” etc etc

  7. Joey G.

    Hi Amy. Glad I came across your blog. I’m a 46 year old lawyer and six and a half years ago, I started taking Karate. I dove into it full force and got my first degree black belt a year and a half ago – one year after my son, who is now 14, got his black belt. He and I are training for our second degree black belts together and we also both teach kids karate one night a week at our dojo. At the age of 46, I was in the best shape of my life and felt more competent than ever before. I was even planning to do the “tough mudder” challenge this summer. On April 17th, while sparring, I fell and sustained a Colles fracture of my right dominant wrist. I had a plate and screws put in last week and I’m in a plaster cast until next week. This sucks huge time. I’m still too tired to work, and I have a sedentary job! So I feel totally useless. It’s particularly bad watching my muscles get flabby. I feel like the old, out of shape guy I was before I started taking Karate. Anyway, thanks for the tips and best of luck with your recovery. I’m having trouble avoiding the “dark side”.

    • Joey G.

      Hi Amy. Glad I came across your blog. I’m a 46 year old lawyer and six and a half years ago, I started taking Karate. I dove into it full force and got my first degree black belt a year and a half ago – one year after my son, who is now 14, got his black belt. He and I are training for our second degree black belts together and we also both teach kids karate one night a week at our dojo. At the age of 46, I was in the best shape of my life and felt more competent than ever before. I was even planning to do the “tough mudder” challenge this summer. On April 17th, while sparring, I fell and sustained a Colles fracture of my right dominant wrist. I had a plate and screws put in last week and I’m in a plaster cast until next week. This sucks huge time. I’m still too tired to work, and I have a sedentary job! So I feel totally useless. It’s particularly bad watching my muscles get flabby. I feel like the old, out of shape guy I was before I started taking Karate. Anyway, thanks for the tips and best of luck with your recovery. I’m having trouble avoiding the “dark side”.

  8. Jenny

    Hey Amy, ik this is a totally different injury and sport but I am a 15 year old swimmer. About 6 months ago my right shoulder starting hurting and has hurt ever since I have done therapy since I’ve been injured and just 2 weeks ago hearing my therapist say I haven’t improved one bit is very discouraging. I try to stay out of the “dark side” of an injury but sometimes I fall straight into for weeks at a time. The hardest thing is missing all the competitions and feeling useless all the time. Any extra advice? Thank you.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your injury, Jenny! I swam in high school, too, and suffered some shoulder troubles. The only things that have worked for me are: being kind to yourself; being patient with yourself and trusting that your hard work will eventually pay off; staying involved however you can (organizing team get-togethers outside the pool?); and reminding yourself of the things you like to do other than swimming (even when swimming is all you want to do). Hang in there—I’m sending healing thoughts your way!

  9. Hi Amy:
    Thanks so much for writing about your olecranon reduction surgery. I too had the surgery just 5 days ago and the reality and depression have just set in. I was trail running when I broke mine and wouldn’t you know I tripped on a rock and landed entirely on my left elbow (not a scratch on me otherwise). The original injury wasn’t nearly as painful as the surgery (I had a plate an screws put in) and while I’m able to exercise lightly with my legs, I’m already going kind of nuts with the restrictions. A former competitive marathoner, I’m still extremely active – running, cycling, swimming, yoga, etc and I was in great shape when it happened of course. I’m now in a removable splint with sutures scheduled for removal in ten days when I’ll be able to get back in the water (I make part of my living as an aquatic therapist). I’m allowed out of the splint a few times a day to do some unresisted ROM exercises. Anyway, just wondering if you have any tips for bringing down the swelling in my hand. It seems to really increase by the end of the day. I’m elevating at night which does help, but I’m wondering did you experience the same thing and if so, how long did it take to dissipate? I’ve never really thought about my elbow before now – but I have new respect for its importance for my active lifestyle and for taking care of life’s more mundane tasks.Many thanks again for writing about your experiences with this injury.

    • So sorry to hear you’re coping with this injury! I also found that the surgery was far more painful than the injury itself. But I recovered pretty quickly after getting the splint off. I didn’t experience much swelling with my elbow, but when I broke my wrist years ago, I had to hold up my arm in the “Statue of Liberty” position to keep down the swelling in my hand. It’s awkward, but it’s the only thing that really helps. Good luck—hope your recovery is as quick and smooth as mine was!

  10. Pingback: Finally at full strength – a belated, very lengthy post. | Happy-go-Lucky musings.

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