Recovering from a sports injury isn't easy, but it gives athletes an opportunity to reflect on other aspects of their identity. ( Emily Gonçalves)
Recovering from a sports injury isn't easy, but it gives athletes an opportunity to reflect on other aspects of their identity.

Emily Gonçalves

Inside an Athlete’s World: The road back from injury

Explaining the emotional and psychological struggles of recovery

January 27, 2020

(Photo courtesy Blair McDonald)

When I was in high school, I dreamt of becoming a college athlete. I could hardly contain my excitement when I committed to play soccer here at Vanderbilt. From then on, I impatiently counted down the days until I met my new team, got my new gear and attended my new school. Before I came to Vanderbilt, I had diligently thought of every aspect of my college student-athlete experience except for one thing: getting an injury. 

From my very first day of training, I endured acute knee pains in my left patella tendon from years of playing soccer. The pain was excruciating, and it directly inhibited my ability to play soccer to the level that I strived to achieve. With every turn, cut, pass and kick, I was reminded of the nagging pain in my knee. After a year of treatment, I decided to get knee surgery in order to remove a piece of bone that was lodged in my patella tendon. My decision to finally get surgery was not an easy one, but I had tried every non-surgical method to reduce my discomfort, including acupuncture, ultrasound and electrical stimulation. Nothing seemed to work. On Sept. 25,  I got knee surgery. I’ve spent the last four months in physical therapy, working with our athletic trainer to rebuild and re-educate my muscles. 

Every athlete knows that injuries are simply a part of the game. We put our bodies through rigorous workouts every day, sometimes several times a day, while fighting against our busy schedules to find time for the proper recovery treatment we need to sustain this four-year-long lifestyle. While we all hope for nothing more than a few sprained ankles and maybe a black eye, there is always the looming reality of a season-ending injury. Strains, tears, breaks and surgeries do happen, and they’re another aspect of our journey as college athletes. When I used to dream of my life at Vandy, however, I never saw knee surgery in my future. In fact, no athlete ever thinks that they’ll be the one to struggle through a sidelining injury. 

However, I chose to use my injury as an opportunity to focus more on my school work as I tried to remain as positive as possible, reminding myself every day that I would be a better individual and team player now that I had finally fixed my knee. I was also surrounded by an amazing support system with family, friends and teammates who have helped me through every step of the process. 

Nevertheless, the emotional toll of this injury began to weigh heavily on my heart. After a long day of rehab, I often found myself on the brink of tears as I wished for nothing more than to be able to play soccer again without the hindrance of a bum knee. I began to struggle with a part of my identity that has been grounded in soccer for the past fourteen years.

I realized that the skills I pride myself for the most—time-management, teamwork, leadership, etc.—are a direct result of the time I’ve spent as a soccer player. As a result of my injury, I began to question how to best use these traits, without soccer in my life for the time being, and my confidence began to waver. 

The feelings that I have described are ones that injured athletes know too well. And on top of it all, we simply miss our team. While everyone has made me and the two other injured players on the soccer team feel especially included and comfortable, there is an inevitable disconnect when we can no longer practice or play in games. 

 The road to recovery has not been easy, but it has given me time to reflect. While I definitely experienced a period of doubt, I also found in myself and my two other injured teammates an impressive amount of resilience. During our time at Vanderbilt, athletes and students alike will go through tough experiences that challenge everything we thought we knew about ourselves. After all, that’s what college is for. Yet in the wake of such adversity, it’s important to find the positive, any positive, to hold onto, especially when giving up seems like the only option left. Personally, I turned towards my faith, my school work and even this column as my outlets. I have a long way to go before I’m 100 percent healthy again, but I’ve learned a lot about my character and determination so far, and I’m excited to see what’s next.

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