Andy Kirkaldy: Injuries take toll, both physically and mentally

Talk to an athlete and you are almost certainly talking to an injured athlete. Maybe not at the moment, but somewhere along the line he or she will have twisted an ankle, suffered a concussion, broken a bone, torn some cartilage, or suffered the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear in a knee.
My own list includes too many ankle sprains to remember, at least one concussion, two broken bones, and surgeries to remove torn meniscus in a knee and scrape a bone spur out of an ankle joint.
Virtually any athlete can tell a similar story.
But unlike two of the best high school girls’ soccer players in Addison County this fall, Andi Boe in Middlebury and Emily Rooney in Vergennes, my ACLs are intact. Nor do most athletes lose the final halves of our senior seasons to a knee injury, like Middlebury College quarterback Jared Lebowitz. 
Yes, it was a tough fall for injuries in these parts. A badly sprained ankle also kept talented freshman Camille Malhotra from running for the MUHS girls in the Division II championship race, almost certainly costing them the championship. And nagging ailments caused a number of athletes to miss time across many teams.
But the ACL injuries are among the worst. They are not as awful as some, such as the gruesome ankle fracture Boston Celtic forward Gordon Hayward suffered five minutes into his team debut.
But as well as requiring surgery and a lengthy rehab, ACL tears are among the most common of the major injuries, particularly for female athletes. I have witnessed personally close to a dozen ACL tears over the years, and know of many more.
And I think there’s a tendency for us, even athletes with histories of injuries not quite so dramatic, to take for granted what it means to come back from a major injury. We hear about it, and, I don’t want to say shrug, figure that after eight or 10 months of rehab everything will be fine.
But I don’t think we should take for granted what athletes have to go through, psychologically and socially as well as physically, when they can’t do what they love.
A couple of years ago I sat in on a class at Vergennes Union High School and listening to student Téa Keifer’s presentation about the impact on her psyche when she was sidelined with a torn ACL. Téa talked about the frustration of not being able to play with her teammates, about the isolation and unhappiness, and what would help those in her position moving forward. Téa planned to go into physical therapy and athletic training and use what she had learned to help others.
“Her whole point was realizing physical injury has a social element to it,” said teacher Michael Thomas.
I asked another expert about being hurt, a Middlebury Union athlete who missed her senior basketball season with a foot injury, and later on lost half a Wellesley College field hockey season with a broken bone.
“Getting sidelined by an injury is arguably the most frustrating thing that can happen to an athlete,” wrote Kaitlyn Kirkaldy in an email to her dad. “A big part of your identity comes from playing the sport you love, so when you lose that it can become overwhelming and isolating. You have no control over your team’s outcome anymore; you become a passive observer.”
Fortunately, experts have begun to understand and address the psychological aspect of dealing with injury. At howardluksmd.com physical therapist Anja Goebel quotes Michael Jordan: “My body could stand the crutches, but my mind couldn’t stand the sideline.”
She continued: “Sure, an ACL tear is physically painful, the rehab is long and gruesome and extremely frustrating at times. But the physical pain is nothing compared to the emotional one. Athletes identify themselves by the capabilities of their bodies, and when they tear an ACL their body fails them.”
Goebel said she tries to incorporate workouts into rehab that recreate “at least some sense of athletic identity.”
According to the American College of Sports Medicine the recovering athletes’ frame of mind during recovery is critical: “A consistent relationship has been found between the presence of self-confidence, optimism, resilience, self-efficacy, motivation to recover, recovery from previous illness and injury, and successful outcomes from illness and injury treatment.”
That organization’s website also notes “social support” from friends and teammates is critical to recovery, and identifies critical places where such help can be found: “Among the major sources of social support may be continued team participation and the resulting maintained sense of athletic self-identity.”
Along those lines it was heartening to see the athletes mentioned above maintained close and active ties with their teams and stayed on the sidelines while injured. For example, Boe’s coach, Wendy Leeds, said she was “like a third coach on the sidelines.”
Another factor that organization’s website mentions — and that I hope local athletes can take advantage of — is the practice of “Encouraging and facilitating peer support (e.g., providing access to another athlete who has successfully recovered from a similar illness or injury).”
In the case of Hayward, expected to miss all of the Celtics’ season, another athlete who suffered a similar injury, Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George, reached out to Hayward with support and advice. And Hayward’s coach, Brad Stevens, in turn contacted his friend and George’s former coach, Frank Vogel, for guidance in how to help Hayward through the months of rehab, which early on Hayward is spending in a wheelchair. That’s how things should work.
And if all goes well, injured athletes can have the positive personal outlook and the support from friends, mentors and caregivers that will help their rehab go well, and they can come out the other side in a good frame of mind and ready to start over.
Thankfully, my daughter said that happened for her:
“You often end up a better teammate for it. You spend more time watching the game with players who don’t see as much playing time as you. Gaining that perspective and empathy for your teammates ultimately makes you a better player and person. You also feel your teammates rallying around you and playing a role in your recovery, motivating you to stay positive when you feel most down.”

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