During every athletic career there are thousands of firsts — first point, first trophy, first time in the starting lineup. The majority of firsts in sports are exciting, but negatives exist as well. This week, after 12 years of playing basketball and feeling as though I’ve experienced it all, I unfortunately was surprised with yet another first. My athletic career to this point has been blessed with good health and — knock on wood — I have eluded serious injuries. After hundreds of games played, this week marked the first time I was sidelined because of injury.
Nearing the postseason, my mind and heart were longing for the court so much I convinced myself I was OK, I could deal with the pain and eventually it would go away — but my body said differently. I was injured, I needed rest and my role on the team this week simply was to rehab and recover — and this week I learned that’s okay.
Toughing out injuries, conquering pain and overcoming illness are glorified in the athletic world. Professional athletes who compete through pain and succeed are commended by coaches, media and fans for being brave, dedicated and passionate. The media describes their stories as remarkable and inspiring, but they often neglect the potentially dangerous consequences of competing despite injury.
During 2006, Curt Schilling, then a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, became a hero for winning game six of the National League Championship Series shortly after surgery on a tendon in his ankle. During 2008, Tiger Woods made headlines for winning a U.S. Open golf championship with a broken leg and torn ACL. And perhaps the most famous tale of superhuman athletes is Michael Jordan’s “Flu game,” where he scored 38 points as a shooting guard for the Chicago Bulls during the fifth game of the 1997 NBA Finals. As an athlete, you’re not only inspired by these stories, but motivated. Coaches call upon their players to be tougher, citing these famous scenarios and challenging their athletes to play with this edge. The pressure is on, and we’re expected to meet the challenge.
So that’s what we do as athletes. We stock our lockers with ibuprofen, and we tough it out. We can’t bear the thought of disappointing our team or, more importantly, ourselves.
After all, athletes easily are subjected to the illusion of invincibility. Players possess a natural drive to “be tough” or “walk it off” when they feel pain. Toughness is a key factor in sports, and the drive to be invincible is reinforced everyday when they train. Training shows athletes firsthand they are capable of pushing their limits, and this goes to their heads. Training can make athletes feel untouchable, and admitting an injury is perhaps the most difficult thing. They are ashamed to see their bodies fail them, and they succumb to a feeling of weakness. Injuries are a harsh reminder their bodies are not bulletproof.
These are painful realizations I have faced during the last week. I learned the importance of listening to your body, and though your intentions might be good, pushing through the pain can make you a liability to your team. I learned it’s not worth risking the future for the present.
And most importantly, I learned that though I am an athlete, I am not invincible, and that’s okay.