By Nerissa Periola
I’m running down the court. I see her; she’s playing out of control. “Perfect,” I thought to myself. I’ll take advantage of her recklessness and try to get a charge out of her. One…two…plant your feet and brace for impact. Your stance is good, she’s coming this way. 5…4…3…2..1…wait… she turned her body. She took my knee with her. I fell on the ground. I screamed, the crowd fell silent. I am not invincible.
Injuries happen in the knick of time. They range from the common sprained ankle to broken bones to paralysis. Regardless of the injury, the level of impact on an athlete’s season can range from a couple of practices, a game, more than a game, or even the loss of a whole season. I remember when I found out I tore my ACL, my world came to a halt. Will I still get a chance to be recruited? Can I become the player I think I am? I hope I’m not letting my teammates and coaches down. Why me? When I had my surgery I was made to stay home for a whole week on painkillers while I had to sit for 12-14 hours of the day with my leg on a machine trying to get back my range of motion. My parents tried to keep my spirits up, but they still kept their distance. They didn’t know how to go about it, I always had a solemn and sunken face, empty of emotion, or any happy thought. I spent that whole week deep in my head, not able to control and understand the heap of emotions that banged my skull every second. I wrapped my whole existence around being an athlete. This was the only thing that separated me from my siblings. This is what made me feel free, alive, in control… It became too much for me. I limped to the kitchen one night, determined to make the deafening thoughts and voices stop. I grabbed the biggest knife I could find, I was close to ending it all. Suddenly, I saw a flash of my loved ones standing in front of me. My sister reached out her hand…and I took it. I limped back to my room.
I remember when I found out I tore my ACL, my world came to a halt.
On average, 1 in every 5 people will suffer from a mental health disorder at least once in their lifetime. Athletes are no exception. Injuries can cause anxiety, depression, a perverted sense of self, and others depending on the resiliency of the individual. Thus, the delicacy of an athlete’s resilience to challenging adversities and injuries depends on the environment they grew up in, their self-perception of themselves, the perception of themselves through the eyes of their peers, the expectations of their parents, the list can go on. The journey to recovery is not easy. You can’t just rub some dirt on it and move on, you have to power through a deep muddy wasteland to reach the oasis on the other side. Yes, the doctor will tell you that physically you’ll be ready to play in a certain amount of time, but when will you be mentally ready?
Athletes can go through the motions of recovery but get lost in the process. They may feel that they’re not progressing fast enough so they become impatient, or the injury has put a stain on their ego that has penetrated so deep that they lose their sense of self. The trauma and fear from the moment of injury can make it feel almost impossible to return from injury and face the same situation again. Whatever reason, this can cause an athlete to give up entirely from the result of burnout. They’ve had enough of this.
Yes, the doctor will tell you that physically you’ll be ready to play in a certain amount of time, but when will you be mentally ready?
What can be done to help prevent this from happening?
There are several things to consider. One thing I wish I had when I was in recovery and going through it was a support system. I remember my friends and family were there the first couple weeks, a lot of sympathy cards and positive messages. After a while, I was hobbling to class struggling to open the door with my crutches while people watched. My parents tried to be positive but with their facial expressions of sympathy and avoiding talking about the injury all together. During this time, I wish I was told the reality of my situation, the physical and mental recovery I will have to endure, and the encouragement needed to keep going. I didn’t want to be forgotten, I just wanted to be seen. Then, when I finally was able to practice, my coaches didn’t know how to go about it.
A year after I graduated I went back to my high school to shoot around and saw my old coach. He told me, “I wish I knew what you were feeling inside, that fear you had. I knew you could do so much more but didn’t understand why you couldn’t.” Coaches need to educate yourselves in supportive ways to help your athletes through these tough times. Coaches should understand the process of recovery, from the time of injury to the things the athlete must do to progress further and work with their athlete to take steps to achieve their goals.
Lastly, I think the most important thing I wish I had done was to ask for help. When I was in high school, I didn’t fully understand the importance of my mental health. I grew up with a military father and a headstrong mother who seemed to always get through their problems on their own. I am not them. I am my own person. Take the time to consider confiding in a sports psychologist. They are trained to specifically help athletes reach their peak performance consistently while understanding their internal human emotions. You may not understand how to navigate the negative emotions and feelings. Allow someone to walk you through it, confide in them, trust them.
For too long I believed that I would be able to fix myself, without even understanding the complexities of the emotional turmoil that was raging inside my head. Despite the challenges, somehow I found a little light at the end of the tunnel and charged towards it. My experience was my teacher, and now as I coach high school girls, I have the ability to empathize and help them through times like these that they may not understand. I am the support. I am the help I never received or searched for. As mental health comes to the forefront, it is important to educate and utilize resources that are offered to help. Sports psychologists have come onto the scene, with clients ranging from Olympic athletes to professionals to college to high school and so forth. They are trained to aid athletes in competing to the best of their ability and beyond. If this is not your forte, consider a support group, a friend, or an adult that you have trust in. Regardless of where you search for help, don’t be afraid to ask for it. In the words of Albus Dumbledore to Harry Potter, “help will always be given at Hogwarts, Harry, to those who ask for it.” But this isn’t a fictional tale. This is your life, your mental health. Reach out, someone will be there to reach back.