When your sport or activity is your passion, and you get injured, getting rid of the cursed injury can become your sole obsession. It can beat you down, and make you feel like you are doomed to be an onlooker for eternity. It can drive you to seek help from everyone from doctors, therapists, spiritual healers, and strange gadgets that purport to have the answer. It can put you into a slump, and influence every facet of your life. I have been that soldier. More than once. There are certain things that you much know. Things that will lift the misery and pressure of an injury from your shoulders, and really allow the space for healing to happen.
Spend the next ten minutes reading this article. It will not magically heal any physical wounds that you have, but if you take it on board, it WILL create the space for your body to heal, and get you to the place where you can start to exercise and train again with meaning, immediately. I know this to be true through my own experience, and through the experience of those whom I have helped in the past.
1. Seek and you shall not find.
This saying is as old as the hills, but holds true every time. When it comes to injury, obsessing over the intricacies of your anatomy, and seeking out every ‘expert’ in the field is a sure way to lock that injury into your body for much longer than is required. Generally speaking, when you are in this state of mind, your are in a state of panic. ‘Oh my God, I have to get back out there, like yesterday!’ Sound familiar? This makes you desperate for the answer, and causes stress, which does not help the situation either. The real problem though, is that you zoom in on the symptoms of the injury that you have, and do not create the space to observe the actual mechanics of the problem. I.e. what caused the injury. Focusing on the symptoms will mostly cause you to overstress and already stressed area in a frantic bid to get it ‘back to normal’.
2. Most of the time your not really ‘injured‘
Lets put a bit of perspective on things here. Having a minor pain in your knee that does not allow you to run at full pelt is not an injury. Coming out of a car crash with broken bones, a cracked skull, and brain swelling is an injury. Our sports injuries are first world problems that would not even merit a blog post in most places in the world. This rational is not a trivialization of your injury, but a crucial mindset for you to adopt in order to get yourself back on track, and can be applied, even if you have just had surgery, or have been out of the game for years due to an injury. In 2009, I developed osteitis pubis, and had inflammation of my pubic symphyses. The symptoms included pain where no man should feel feel pain, and the inability to sleep, get into or out of a car or bed without wincing, and the inability to even jog without pain. Realizing that things were not really that bad for me, in fact, that I was functioning perfectly for 90% of the day, and that my ‘problem’ doesn’t not ever register on the scale in the greater scheme of things took a lot of pressure off and put things into perspective. The next time you think you are injured, ask your self this question; If your house was on fire, would your ‘injury’ effect your escape. Would you say ‘I have to wait for the fire brigade to rescue me‘, or would you get out of there like a bat out of hell. If your answer is the latter, then your not really injured. (Yes, I know this may offend you if you are one of those people who holds on to the topic of your injuries as the main content of most of your conversations, but the sooner you realize the truth, the better)
3. Seize the opportunity
I recently attended Ido’ Portal’s Movement camp in Phuket Thailand. I went there with a sore shoulder that has been lingering for the last year or so. On the day before the camp started, a fellow smashed his face of the ground in a back-flip gone wrong and ended up in hospital, with doctors wanting to operate through his throat to reattach the bits of his face that were hanging off. An Aussie in my class broke his toe on the third day. 75 year old Stephen Jepsen was my training partner for the first Parkour and Gymnastics sessions. The man with the smashed face was back taking part in the camp after 2 days. The Aussie who broke his toe took part in EVERY SINGLE PART of the camp (despite having it accidentally stomped on during Ido’s class), Stephen Jepsen was break falling, performing push ups, depth jumps, and ring rows, and I completed everything with what you could say was an injured shoulder. Just because you feel pain when you do a particular exercise in a particular way does not mean that you cant move, and take part in things that will challenge you in ways that will enrich your life in ways that you may not have experienced otherwise.
Getting ‘injured’ can be a simple nudge from above to expand your experience and knowledge in areas of your life that you have neglected or not yet discovered. Whatever activity you got injured from, or are now limited from doing, is not even a drop in the ocean compared to the challenges that you can take up, should you chose to accept them. For me, going through a long term hip injury allowed my to develop professionally in ways that help me every day now. I can empathies with athletes that I work with when they get injured, and can help them move forward much better had I not experienced the feeling myself. I completed courses in business that have helped me deliver my message to those that I work with. I travelled abroad to places that I would never have seen otherwise. I learned skills, and developed perspective on sports that would have been blind to me had I kept on beating my body up in that way that I was before ‘injury’ struck. In fact, the things that I learned while I was out, helped me be a better athlete, and a better coach upon my return. When I adopted the mindset of seizing the opportunities presented by injuries, I just pull it out of the bag every time a pesky niggle comes knocking, and come out stronger on the other side.
4. What is your identity?
This was a major one for me. Ever since I have been 5 years old, I called myself a hurler. My hurling stick was an extension of my arm, and I took great pride in the recognition that I received for my hurling abilities. I was a hurler. The trouble with this was that my identity and my perception of self-worth largely hung on the balance of things that were totally and 100% beyond my control. The coach may not fancy me as a player, which has happened in the past, and I would take a major hit to my self-esteem. Even more likely was that I would pull a muscle, or fail to protect my hand when going to catch a high ball, or take a rib-cracking jab into the side from some hero that would render me pretty useless for a few weeks. My first experience of this was when I pulled my hamstring the week before an All-Ireland schools semi final, while playing for the Antrim minor hurling team in 2002. I felt that I had let my teammates down by allowing my hamstring to pull! More seriously, when osteitis pubis struck in 2009, I ended up missing the next 3 seasons of hurling. It was during this period that I realized pinning my whole identity on being a hurler was like building the Taj Mahal on a foundation of quicksand. What was even worse, was that for a while, I could see my identity becoming the injury. Everyone I met, while well-meaning’ was asking me ; ‘How’s the hip’ , and it started to drive me insane. So much so that I started to avoid certain people and groups so that I would not have to talk about it. While it was bad to have lost my identity as a hurler, it was even worse to become know for an injury!
It set me off on a journey of self exploration. What did I really want to be. I decided that my identity would come from building integrity as a person, being honest, genuine, humble, being open minded, being a a good brother, son, family member, and friend, and being a Gael. These are all things that cannot be taken away or diminished by anyone or any situation, and give me a solid foundation on which to build from. In fact over the last 5 years or so, they have given me the confidence and self-assurance to do things that I may not have been able to follow through on had I not gone through the experience of dealing with being out of the game of hurling, such as setting up a business, travelling, writing blogs like this, and helping others achieve their goals.
Last year, I worked as a presented on a BBC/TG4 documentary on mental health in the GAA, and the alarming suicide rates among the young men of Ireland. We spoke with friends and relatives of young men who had taken their own lives, sometimes over seemingly trivial things. We love our games, and our sports in Ireland, but life is too short and too precious to be holding on to such a fickle identity that can be smashed in the blink of an eye, especially when there are people around us who care about our well-being and want to be around us and enjoy the comings and goings of every day life. What is your identity?
5. Re-establish Structure
One of the main things that goes out the window when injury comes ‘a knockin’ is the structure of your week. Your Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday’s are now filled with empty voids where you would usually meet up with your team mates and train or compete. The feedback that you are used to getting from coaches is gone. The laughs and the challenges that comes from training with a group are no-more. As priorities go, this should be right up there with the things that you need to address. The problem is that if you are committed to a particular activity (running, GAA, triathlon etc.), the training that you do is based on those sports. Once you get injured, you are suddenly cast to the periphery, where coaches are not sure what to do with you, and your training is relegated to a massage and a few menial ‘rehab’ exercises prescribed by the club therapist. As an athlete, you are used to structure and everything that that brings, and you need to reestablish some new structures and goals to stimulate your body and mind as soon as possible after an injury happens. For some, this can be easier said than done, and what I recommend is sitting down with a trusted source, and work out a new plan of action. Not a plan of action that is solely made up from rehab sessions, but one that challenges you to achieve new goals that are worthy in their own right. A lot of the time, getting back to competing should not be the primary goal, but a secondary goal that is achieved as a side effect of the new plan.
6. Too many chef’s spoil the broth
When you get injured, the absolute worst person to take control of your rehabilitation is yourself. However, getting the right person in place to help you move forward is a challenge. Different people from different fields al have their unique perspectives on what needs to be done. Physio, doctor, surgeon, neurologist, osteopath, strength and conditioning. Who’s opinion you trust depends on your personal philosophy on coming back from injury, if you have one. The biggest danger, and what happens 9 times out of 10 here is that you end up with some kind of Frankenstein concoction of the doctor’s advice, the physio’s rehab exercise, your coaches recommendation, and your own spin on the whole thing. The results is the equivalent of drinking a smoothie that tastes like the juice that accumulates at the bottom of your wheelie bin.
I have given you an insight into my own personal philosophy on the topic during this article so far, and as a result it influences who I choose as my coaches. I started training under the Ido Portal method in January of this year, and continue to do so. Handing control over to a coach who walks the walk, and who is congruent with my personal philosophy has been one of the best decisions that I have made. It takes the pressure off and allows an objective view of what really needs to be done to move forward. Going around in circles from person to person wastes time, energy, and money. Especially when you can go straight to the top. It may cost more in the short term to go straight to the top, but believe me, you will save tenfold in the long run.
7. The Body Heals
You are blessed with THE most intricate, complex, intelligent, and mysterious machine EVER invented. No, its not your iPhone. The human body is a miracle that will probably never be fully understood. The body can and will heal itself when it comes to the vast majority of sports injuries, if it is allowed to. The trick is to avoid this things that hinder the healing process, and enjoy doing the things that aid the healing process. Unfortunately, our perception of which is which has been distorted over the last century or two. ‘Rest’ rarely works, contrary to popular belief. Medication does not address the problem most of the time, and often even fails to address the symptoms when it comes to injury. The food that we eat (and don’t eat), along with our daily habits, and our mindset to approaching challenges such as injuries are the key to getting over them. Worry, anxiousness, too many opinions, a patchwork quilt approach to rehab, and negativity all serve to lock an injury into the system. Rebuild with your trust with your body, and know that it will heal. In the meantime enjoy the ride!
8. Movement holds the answer….lots of movement
The way you sit, stand, walk, and train all have a bearing on how fast you come back from injury. Most of the time, sports injuries are probably caused by some form of poor movement anyway. However, I think we need to calibrate our thoughts on movement a bit. Think of the last time you had an injury from your sport. If you completed a ‘rehab program’ it probably looked a bit like 3 sets of 10 of a few exercises a few times per week. Probably 60 minutes of exposure to the movements per week at a push. Now consider how long you spent sitting in your car, or slouched on the sofa, or hunched over your keyboard. Probably around 40-60 hours in total. Do you see the discrepancy there? I have been training under the Ido Portal method for the last 4 or 5 months. Averaging around 3 hours of training PER DAY, and I still feel like every inch of progress is like a fight to the death. It takes a lot more time to change how the body works that most of us think, and the training that you do is probably the thing that is having the least amount of an effect on your recovery if its along the lines of the 3×10 model that is most common today. If you are dealing with a long standing shoulder injury, hip injury, hamstring, groin, Achilles, back, its time to get real.
9. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of the cure
The real trick to getting over an injury is to do the right things from the start. Go straight to the top. Move your body in a variety of ways, not just in the way that is required by your sport. Build a versatile, and resilient body that will withstand the mental and physical pressures of your sport, and in life in general. The idea that you can reach the top of your game JUST by doing that particular activity (i.e. runners JUST running, or swimmers JUST swimming) is dead. The best athletes have general abilities, as well as their specific abilities. This gives them the resilience required to last the course, and the backup plan if they get injured in their sport. A runner who only runs, is like taking a small pick axe, and just chipping away at the very same spot on a boulder. Eventually the boulder will crack. A runner who has a movement program and develops their general skills and strengths is like chipping here and there on the boulder with the pick axe. It will never crack. A prime example of this is one of our most promising young swimmers at ACLAÍ. He can walk the length of our 16ft balance beam, forwards and backwards, while juggling 3 balls at the same time! As part of his strength and conditioning program he squats, lifts, pushes, pulls, jumps, lands, hangs, and bounds. This is versatility.
This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin. Sport and Exercise Scientist, Strength and Conditioning Coach, and Managing director of ACLAÍ.