Hi everyone! Thanks for checking out my blog post. Special thanks to Julie Hubbard for allowing me to take over this week’s blog to talk about something that has deeply impacted my life — the mental health of sport. More specifically, I’d like to share some tips and advice on how to handle the mental obstacles you may have to overcome when sustaining a sidelining injury.
I have played soccer ever since I can remember, with dreams and aspirations of playing in college and someday going pro. Like many of us, soccer was a huge part of my life (basically my entire life). On the field was where I made my closest friends and spent the majority of my weekends. Skipping parties or dances for tournaments and showcases. I felt most like myself while playing.
When I tore my ACL for the first time, I was devastated. I was only 12 years old. I was playing in the Indoor Nationals with my club team. I was jumping up for a 50/50 ball and landed with my legs straight, hyperextending my knee. I heard a crack and assumed I broke my leg. Being only twelve, I had no knowledge of ACL tears or their prevalence in female athletes. I ended up buying a knee brace at CVS that night and tried to play during our ODP practice the next day. I immediately had to have the athletic trainer look at my knee due to instability while playing.
The trainer suggested I go to my orthopedist to get an MRI… and the rest is history. My doctor recommended that I wait until my growth plates closed. Eventually we agreed on a different surgery that would involve a cadaver graft and would take around 8-9 months to return back to sport. That still seemed like an eternity to me, and I’m pretty sure I spent that whole ride home crying. However, it would not be the last time the frustrations of this injury would bring me to tears.
I would go on to tear my ACL three more times; a total of two contact and two non-contact injuries.
I think the hardest part for me personally was the feeling of identity loss. I felt like I didn’t know who I was without my sport. I struggled to bond in the same way that I used to be able to with my teammates. It felt as though I had nothing to offer without the ability to demonstrate my craft. I know that sounds extreme, but if you’re reading this as serious athlete who has sustained a sidelining injury, you might have felt similarly. I’m now going to provide you with some of my best advice on how to cope with season-ending or career-ending injuries. Obviously, do what works for you. I think the recovery process affects us all differently. Hopefully, my experience can help you find an approach that works for you.
- Be patient. This one is very important throughout the entire process. It’s important to remember not to rush to return to sport too quickly. No one likes to be kept away from what they love. Even though 8-9 months can feel like forever, in the grand scheme of things, missing a couple of seasons and coming back stronger and prepared will keep you on the field longer. It’s also important to be patient when you do finally return to sport. You’re not going to be the same player you were before right away. It takes time to feel confident going into contact situations or just confident with your skills. Acknowledge how you feel and think about why you feel this way and what you can do to help. Do you not feel comfortable going into tackles? Find a teammate to practice with to help build your confidence back up. Coaches can also help by making modifications to practice allowing you to start getting involved sooner.
- Find a distraction. This is related to the recovery process and may not be for everyone. For me, personally, I knew that going to practice every week in order to sit on the sidelines made me very upset. I ended up going only a handful of times while recovering. I also know I would be more tempted to push the limits of what I was ready to participate in during practice.
- Talk about how you feel. This is a journey. It’s important to acknowledge how you feel. Talk it out with someone who can offer advice or who you can just vent to! For me this was a combination of my physical therapist, my family, my teammates, and my friends. It helped me to know that I had a support system and wasn’t going through this alone. It also helped me to not keep emotions bottled up in order to avoid outbursts but trust me, there were still some (see next tip).
- Be thankful to those who are helping you. Attitude is extremely important. I had a couple of times where I lashed out at people that I knew were only trying to help me. I think everyone has these moments during the recovery process, but it’s important to remember that people who are helping you only want to see you succeed.
- Try to take away learnings from the process. I will never forget when I tore my ACL for the first time. They struggled to control my pain levels, and I ended up staying overnight at the hospital. The only room available was in the pediatric cancer ward. The other girl in my room had cancer and her family was asking my family if I was diagnosed as well. Talk about a humbling moment. Everyone is going to endure hardships in their life. Being injured and unable to compete in your sport may feel like the end of the world to you. But it’s important to remember this is just another obstacle that you can overcome and learn from.
- Focus on preparation. This is a biggie that I think helps a lot. It’s really important to make sure that your physical therapist knows you are trying to prepare your body to compete again at a high level. Find a physical therapist that will allow you to incorporate your sport into your training whenever possible. If you sustained your injury from a non-contact mechanism, it’s even more critical. After tearing my ACL during a jump, I focused a lot on proper jumping mechanics and balance. I find the best way for me to personally deal with self-doubt or negative self-talk is to channel that energy into preparation. Knowing that I’m putting in the work helps me feel more confident once I do return to the field.
- Celebrate the little victories. It’s easy to get discouraged with the slow recovery process while you’re waiting to get back to doing the things you love. In order to help you keep a positive attitude, don’t forget to celebrate the little things. Moments like being able to do your first leg raise, gaining back your range of motion, or losing that ugly knee brace. They may seem like little things, but each one is a milestone. Each is a milestone of progress in your journey back to sport and should be celebrated accordingly.
The most important thing to remember during the recovery process is to not get discouraged. No time feels like the right time in your season to sustain an injury. We can’t always control what happens to us, but we can control how we react. I hope these tips offer some advice on how to shift your outlook and perspective during your recovery process.
Mika Bussey is a Michigan-native who played soccer at the club level for the Michigan Hawks, as well as at the collegiate level for the NCAA Division I UCONN Huskies. Mika understands the psychological struggles of sport first-hand, as she experienced involuntary retirement following her fourth ACL injury in college. Mika now enjoys playing recreational pick-up and lives in Chicago working for CIGNA. She is a strong advocate for athletes struggling with mental health and is always willing to speak on this issue, as it lives near and dear to her heart.