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Thriving through Sport Injury

Nick Galli
University of Utah

Injuries are among the most stressful aspects of participation in competitive sport. Serious injuries can have a variety of negative physical and psychological consequences for athletes, and may even result in the end of a season or a career. Despite the difficulty of injury, recent research shows that athletes who suffer serious injuries report a renewed perspective on sport, increased motivation, and an improved ability to cope with frustrations (Podlog & Eklund, 2006).

The following section contains an excerpt from an interview with a former Division I college basketball player named Julie. Julie had nine knee surgeries between her junior year of high school and her sophomore year of college. As a result of her final surgeries, Julie was forced to quit playing and become the team manager. Julie addressed her thoughts and feelings throughout the process of injury and recovery, the factors that influenced her during this process, and her perception of how she changed as a result of her career ending injuries. A pseudonym is used to protect the anonymity of the athlete.

I:  What were your feelings during this process?

J:  I got here freshman year at [University] to play. You know I got to play one day didn’t get to play the next, and I learned that things happen for a reason. Like at first I was so mad I was like, “Why am I getting these injuries?” But now when I look back on it I feel like it happens for a reason. You have to find that something inside of you to make it feel like it happened for a reason. It definitely taught me a lot about what really means the most to you in life. And you just learn to appreciate the smaller things you know. It happened for a reason. Maybe for me to understand that or to be able to get the different view of a coaching aspect this year. You know going from a player to a manager to being able to be a student assistant coach on the college level. I just try to look at it in as positive way I can. Instead of just being like, “Oh I got injured I could’ve done this!” To where, “I got injured so it opened different roads for me to be able to explore.”

I: Tell me a little more about the realization of when you went from a player to team manager.

J: It was hard at first. Very hard. ‘Cause you were a teammate and now you’re a manager. And the girls did, like I’m still good friends with the girls, but it was kind of like, I wasn’t an outcast but I didn’t feel like I was as much of a part of the team as I was as a player even though no one graduated my freshman year so it was all the same team. And the first game I had tears in my eyes like not being in uniform. But like the first year was really hard being the manager ‘cause my parents would still come to the games and they would be, they were just like “We just wish that we could see you,” you know. And then they were like, what I just said it’s hard to see your daughter go from a player to, “oh the water girl.” That kinda sucked. But, definitely taught me a lesson about, you know, there’s different parts that you have to play. If it’s on a team or, in life it’s like, you just gotta do what you have to do to grow.

I: So what do you think this “lesson” is?

J:  I really don’t have it like pin pointed down to one specific thing. But, be able to change. If something comes along your way, you know like they say, “If the door closes open up a window,” or something like that. You know ‘cause there’s different, different roads to…what your pursuing I guess. Or, I don’t know how to really say it, but just helped me understand also like the reason, just to give me a whole more broad aspect on life. That there’s all kinds of different roads people can take and, you know that there’s more things important than sports! You know family and, education and just, I don’t know.

I: Do you want to coach?

J:  I do, I still do individual lessons right now. That’s one thing too. I was an education major and wanted to be a coach when I first came here. And through all my knee injuries and all my therapy now I’m going to physical therapy school. So you never know what can happen through what you learn through your life experiences. You know, always thought I wanted to be a coach, but now, through my experiences I wanna help people get better. And I feel like as what has happened to me I can relate with people. I mean, especially knee injuries but I feel like I will be able to relate with people through what I’m choosing now to be.

I: Can you talk a little bit about people that played a role during your struggles?

J: First my parents. I mean they’d take me to all my surgeries, they were there during all the injuries, and they always had words of encouragement. And they supported me through it. That’s one of the biggest thing is they still support me as both as when I was a player and when I was a manager or student coach I just know that they will always support me through that. And they helped me out a great deal you know just believing that I’d be able to come back. And not come back and play but just come back and get healed and lead a normal life. Definitely my physical therapist helped me to understand the extent and the extreme of my injury, and what kind of damage it can cause if I continued to play. And then they pulled me into a room at the therapy office just to talk to me about that kind of stuff. You know I wanna get married and have children and with knee injuries like that it would be really hard. You know it’d be really hard on my body to carry that kind of weight. And just walking up and down the steps when I’m older.

I:  What do you think are some things about you that have helped you through this?

J:  I really never realized this before. Well I might have, but coming back from the [Conference] tournament this year I was talking to one of the coaches again, and we were just talking about how this 4 years have gone fast and different things that you go through your college and stuff and she’s like, “you know you really did well getting through everything that you’ve been through.” And she’s like, “The thing that helps you out the most is that, you can laugh about anything. You can find something and turn it into being something funny or happy or you know understand that there are obstacles but you gotta, you gotta see the light at the end of the tunnel.” You know and that’s one thing I do. I laugh a lot. I try to…just be on the lighter side of things you know?

Despite experiencing a sense of loss and confusion in response to her career ending knee injuries, Julie also noted gaining a greater appreciation for life, learning lessons, a changed perspective, and an increased motivation to help others. A positive attitude and strong social support were two factors that helped Julie to not only overcome her injuries, but thrive through them.

Podlog, L., & Eklund, R. C. (2006). A longitudinal investigation of competitive athletes’ return to sport following serious injury. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18, 44-68.