Injured, A Catch-22

At one time or another, be it as an amateur, collegiate, or professional athlete, we’ve all had to endure and push through the threshold of pain, sacrificing our bodies for the sake of competition. To defy bodily ill with mental toughness is a sign of strength and can be categorized as courageous, even heroic at times. As a matter of course, athletes are frequently lauded for this type of achievement, the act of asserting their will and decreeing that their minds are master over their sometimes weakened bodies.

For us athletes, in other words, suck it up and don’t be a wuss might be the closest thing we have to an eleventh commandment.

Remember Jordan with the flu in Game 5 of the finals versus Utah in 1997? Or Tiger winning the 2008 Open on a broken leg? Shoot, go check out the New York City marathon this fall and it’s impossible not to be inspired by the sheer number of amateur runners who willingly take on the 26.2 mile challenge, many of them limping the last few miles (or more) with a look of what can only be described as a cheerful grimace plastered across their faces.

Outstanding performances like these are heralded as epic moments when coupled with the saga of an athlete dealing with pain or injury. We celebrate man’s ability to conquer this hated foe in the world of athletics, but those moments are few and far between in the day-to-day business of sports. With the exception of clearly diagnosed or severe injuries, more often than not, being “injured” can fall into a very murky gray zone. Complications of soreness, inflammation, a sprain, or pulled muscle, although identified are still painfully subjective to manage, both figuratively and literally.

Imagine: You’re on the court, practice is almost finished when you begin to feel an ache in your left knee. It’s in a vague, general sort of area towards the outside of your leg, and you think, “What the heck? I can’t remember anything happening.” You can’t recall any collision or moment of awkwardness during the course of practice. Then without warning the pain shoots up from a dull throbbing sensation to a searing pain that you can’t stand, so you sub yourself out and do the “I’m injured jog” over to the trainer.

Fast forward to practice the next day, the trainer’s done an adequate job of examining you and rules out any serious damage, ligaments are tight, strength is good. You’ve received treatment both the night before and this morning.

“So, how do you feel, can you play?” he asks.

Well, you’ve still got pain, it’s achey, but you’ve been assured that all is well, your knee is fine and will not suffer further damage from playing--problem is, it continues to hurt.

“How much?” he asks, “rate it on a scale one to ten.”

What races through your head in that moment is more than a search for some unintuitive number to quantify your pain, however; someone else is already injured and unable to practice. Without you the team is down to nine players and can’t go five-on-five. You’ve got a big game tomorrow and know how important it is that you, and the team, be able to prepare in order to be sharp. The pain isn’t so bad, you can walk, you reason. More importantly, you’re committed to the team and you’re determined not to let them down. “I got this!” you say to yourself.

So out you go and 20 minutes in, the pain is bad--even after the four Aleve you took--but you continue to give your best effort. Sadly, your performance is lackluster at best and it’s clear that you are not yourself. You can’t quite get the lift on your shot, couldn’t quite get in position to box-out like you normally would, but you find solace in doing the right thing; which is still finding ways to contribute because you take pride in being an athlete and pain will not get the best of you. For crying out loud, it’s not like your arm’s fallen off! (That’s because everyone knows that unless your arm has fallen off, everything else is just an excuse for quitting and you’ve never been a quitter.)

Then without warning you find yourself thrown off balance again, just as the the stabbing pain had knocked you off kilter the day before. As practice comes to a close a teammate bitingly shouts out to “no one in particular,” but aimed directly at you, “That if you can’t do your job, then take a seat. You’ve got no business being out here!”

You’re stunned. You ask yourself if you just heard what you think you heard. A flurry of questions hits you: I thought playing through the pain was the right way to deal with it, am I wrong? Should you only play when you feel totally healthy, because then I’m certain we’d all miss a LOT of time on the court? Wouldn’t I be a jerk for sitting out? Don’t my teammates understand? Haven’t they been in this dilemma? I thought I was helping the team? Maybe I am being a detriment to the team, I guess anything less than 100% is totally unsatisfactory?

Coach knows your circumstance and asked you to play anyway. You said yes, made the final decision to play knowing you weren’t completely healthy, although that’s not entirely clear. The medical staff has assured you that it’s just normal “wear and tear.” You begin to ponder what that means exactly, when the doctor casually adds, “Not to worry, it’s just an issue of how much pain you can handle.”

You release a long, quiet breath while doing your best not to play into the perfect text cue for a SMH (that’s shaking my head for all you unsavvy texters) response and keep your head still.

The bottom line is that you want to be out there. You’ve faced pain and injury a number of times, along with everybody else in your line of work, for that matter, and you hate missing practice, let alone games. With all the experience you’ve acquired over the course of your career, you’d think there would be an explicit roadmap in how to deal with this issue.

There’s not.

Managing this inevitable Catch-22 is made tricky by the subjective nature of measuring your desire to return to action in regards to your ability to compete at 110%, made even more complicated by trying to navigate the perceptions and opinions of everyone else involved. Play with pain if you can play your best, even in practice, because at the professional level you’ll be judged by an uncommon scale--one that doesn’t involve the merit of facing pain, but on the entirety of you overcoming and conquering it to the nth degree.