“Superhuman” Athletes

As athletes we are taught the difference between two things. Being hurt and being injured. This concept has been forced deep into our minds for years. From a young age we learn how to know a strain from sprain, and fromthen on we condition our bodies and our brains to ignore those strains and keep away from the sprains. However, at what point do we realize that a sprain is not a strain? For elite athletes the idea that they may be injured and not hurt, can be an almost impossible thing to accept. In this competitive world we don’t have time to nurse our wounds, we must constantly get faster and stronger day in and day out to be the best.. So we are told. But athletes, despite common beliefs, are not superheros. We are humans. We are humans, just in incredible shape. I think that athletes also don’t realize this fact, and push themselves beyond what their human bodies can take. We get hurt, just like everyone else. But the difference between us and others, is that we have had it drilled in our heads to push through pain, not realizing that a hurt can turn into an injury.

Me, age 5, frist learning how to hit.
Me, age 5, first learning how to hit.

I feel like I’ve been hurt my entire life. Strained hamstrings, hip flexors and ankles, jammed fingers, anterior tibial, patella and bicep tendonitis, osgood-schlatters are all things that have been a constant pain in my 19 years. However, as the years have gone on, I’ve learned how to ignore the dull ache to the point where I don’t even hear it anymore. My body, or more likely my brain, have adapted to the amount of strenuous pressure that being a collegiate athlete takes. We wake up early and start our day. Before practice we stretch out do rehab, and loosen up our tired muscles, then we are expected to perform at a high level for 3 hours straight everyday and head straight into weights and conditioning after every practice. We get a total of three “breaks” per year. Winter break, spring break, and summer break. Even then however, we are not allowed to have a break. We are still expected to work out and lift, and run. So for basically, 200 and somethings days a year, we are putting a tremendous amount of stress on our bodies. And even though we may feel like it, considering all the incredible things we are able to do, we are not superhuman.

That is still a fact I’m trying to come to terms with.

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Most everyone knows of my injury from last summer. It didn’t start off as an injury however. It started off as an uncomfortable tightness in my lower back. Stretch, stretch, stretch. Is what they stressed me to do to rid me of it. So I stretched, my hamstrings, my quads and hip flexors, and the pain did go away… For a while. At the time I was practicing with the national team. I couldn’t afford to be hurt. So every morning, I’d go in, roll out on a lacrosse ball and put biofreeze on the muscle. When I felt that it was getting worse, I went to a chiropractor where he said my hips were simply unaligned, he popped them back in place and the pain did go away… For a couple hours. The problem was that it wasn’t the muscle, or a stubborn SI joint, I was having a stress reaction on the tiny little bones in my lower back. A stress reaction is an overuse injury. Months upon months of training and jumping repeatedly over and over, had finally taken its toll. Although I was in incredible pain, I vividly remember telling people that I was fine and that it go away on its own eventually. It didn’t however. And somewhere in my subconscious, I knew it never would. I remember the last jump that I took. A perfect back set right to me, I jumped up, I swung, the ball hit in bounds in the deep corner. As the team celebrated, I didn’t. I was fighting back tears. My stress reaction, in that moment when I landed, had turned into a stress fracture. And although I could barely walk, a ran to the end line and continued playing for the rest of the game.

3 months. I’ve never been away from volleyball for more than 1 week. 3 months is the amount of time I was expected to be in a back brace, with limited activity and absolutely no volleyball. I spent a lot of my time with little ones in the gym and watched as they cried when they tripped and fell not quite knowing that their arm wasn’t actually broken. They hadn’t yet learned the difference between being hurt and injured. Every cut was as if they were bleeding out, every floor burn was caused by fire, so it seemed. Their parents would tell them to stop the nonsense and keep playing.

3 months of reflecting on every error that I made. I should have known, I was injured and not hurt. A stabbing pain in the lower back, doesn’t mean your muscle wants to be stretched, it means your body needs a break. A break. Athletes don’t get breaks… So we are told. We are superhuman. Trained to do the impossible. We can bear pain. Well, our brains can bear the pain, but we aren’t superhuman, our bodies simply can’t take it. From my experience, I can’t stress this enough. After 3 and half months I somehow was thrown right back into the strenuous conditioning and training, it was modified don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t able to back squat 200 pounds like everyone else anymore. But the thing is, I was so excited and willing to put my body though this again coming right out of my back brace. It’s what I’ve been taught to want. My mind was ready to be playing again, but my body simply wasn’t.

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The struggle with an injury is the psychological effects that happen after the injury is healed. I wasn’t myself. I couldn’t hit as hard as I used to be able to, I couldn’t jump nearly as high as I wanted. I was no longer an All-American, or on the Pac-12 Conference team. I went from being Freshman of the Year, to an athlete, that struggled to even want to play anymore. Even though somewhere deep in my mind I knew that my spine fracture was the reason for these things, I didn’t want to play because in those four long fall months I realized that I wasn’t superhuman. No amount of training could have prepared me for this realization. Although I was playing, I wasn’t healed. Mind or body. I was scared to get hurt again. I was nervous that I couldn’t live up to the pressure and the expectations I had set for myself in my freshman year. I questioned the one thing that I had centered my entire life around. Volleyball. It’s a sport. Nothing more. Somewhere in the years, months and countless hours, I forgot that I loved it, long before I became obsessed with striving to be number one. One. We get one body. And as much as I love volleyball, I love my body more. So when we got knocked out 2nd round by North Carolina, I went home for winter break and didn’t train, lift, run or touch a volleyball for three weeks.

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3 weeks did a lot for me mentally and physically.  After three weeks, I was itching to play again. I felt ready. My body was finally ready, it simply just needed a break. I’m now jumping higher than I expected, faster than I dreamed, and I’m able to hit a ball harder than I have before. 3 weeks. 14 years of volleyball, all I needed was a 3 week separation from it. We aren’t superhumans. We are athletes. Human athletes. We know the difference between a sprain and strain. And it’s important that when we are injured that we don’t ignore it. It’s okay to want to be number one, and despite what we are told, it’s okay to take a break, even when we are hurt. But it is never ever, under any circumstance, okay to play injured. I know this now, a little too late, but better late than never. 11 months later, I still can’t twist my back to the right completely because I ignored my injury that occurred almost a year ago. It took 5 months to learn how to adapt to my new limitation. 11 months and my back is no longer injured but it still hurts. But I know that’s all it is. It hurts and nothing more.

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18 thoughts on ““Superhuman” Athletes”

  1. ebony, that for sharing and i have always believe even since you were in 4th grader …that you were an excellent writer… proud of you and i wish you the very BEST for you in your life.. And i know next season will be a great one and i look forward to seeing you and MK fight it out at the net…take care your mentor/trainer

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  2. I loved this article! It definitely hit home… I was a colligate athlete myself with the same symptoms. I kept going and never listened to what my body was telling me. Eventually, six years later, I had to get mine surgically fixed and lost the feeling in my leg. Your story is very inspiring and makes so much sense! I hope young athletes everywhere read this and see how important it is to take care of themselves. You are so right… We only have ONE body. There are no do-overs or take-backs, so we must take care of the one we have. Thank you for sharing!

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  3. This article hit home. I played at Univ. of Hawaii- after switching my from my previous commitment to USC- and was struggling with and unknown and undiagnosed adrenal disorder that effected my heart’s electrical system and ability to sustain endurance workouts. My trainer and coaches were not so supportive and helpful though, sadly. They accused me of being out of shape and that it was ‘all in my head’.. While making me run until I would pass out. In a way I wish I would’ve never gone to Hawaii, and stuck with my original decision of USC.. I was tormented with the thoughts of things being different if I would’ve gone somewhere else. My condition is manageable and preventable- but I finally couldn’t take the pressure anymore and signed a medical release from the team. No one said anything to me. My teammates exiled me and I never heard one word from them. This is something that still effects me to this day. You are very strong for posting this article, and it made me extremely happy to hear that someone else who is a powerhouse on the court was treated with respect and compassion when injured. I wish the same for everyone else who plays a collegiate sport. I wish you the best of luck in your upcoming seasons!! I do have one bit of advice for speedy healing.. MAGNESIUM! Take magnesium baths, spray magnesium all over your body as much as you can! It is a necessary mineral for the body that helps with inflammation, pain and even cell repair and tissue regeneration 🙂 GOOD LUCK!!

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    1. Corinne,

      I would like to know more about your adrenal disorder. It sounds very similar to my daughters symptoms which no one can diagnose!

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      1. Low blood pressure, and dramatically drops in endurance situations to where I could pass out. It’s called Vaso Vagal Syncope- it was diagnosed by an electrophisologist! Cardiologists where stumped, thought I had mitral valve prolapse or marfan’s. It’s very common for young athletic and tall women, especially from European genealogy.

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  4. Ebony, wow! I am so proud of you! You are a great volleyball player and a great writer. Always remember what you now know and remember to say no when you need to. You will always be number one for your friends that know and love you. Brooke’s Grammy.

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  5. Great article. I was a student athlete myself, and I am now the Women’s Tennis assistant coach at the University of Nevada, Reno. I hope many athletes and coaches will read this! Health is so important and Athletes need to realize that sometimes it is better to stop few days and get over being hurt, than pushing it and be injured for months! I am looking forward to read your next posts! Sophie

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  6. This hits home for me too. My collegiate daughter just recently had her second ACL recon. Once the Dr was in there, it was discovered she had been without an ACL for quite sometime. Long enough for bone to grow over the notch in her femur where the ACL was suppose to be. The Dr wasn’t sure how she was able to play for so long without it…I do, she taught herself to play through the pain. Here we are now, with another ‘new’ ACL and 8-10 months of rehab.

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  7. great article! I played volleyball (Div 2) on a full ride 20 plus years ago and won 2 national championships. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of balanced training and rest as I’m now an ICU nurse who has lived with the ramifications of both my training as a young athlete to my training for various events as an adult. I’m in my mid 40s yet my body feels like it’s 80. In the future I’ll face a spine fusion, knee replacements, and God knows what else. I played volleyball 5-6 days/week for much of my 15 year career (I played 7 years of open club volleyball after college). It’s a fantastic sport but also one of the toughest physically.

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  8. My eyes welled up with tears as your article brought back memories of my daughter and her years in club and collegiate volleyball. When she was 13 years old she played club ball on a 16s team while she participated on her school basketball and track teams at the same time. She would go from one practice to another, some days all 3 practices. She kept pushing through the pain until one day at vb practice she landed from a jump serve and couldn’t move, the pain was excruciating. That’s when we started the journey to find out what was going on. Long story short, she had to sit out for 3 months with fractures in her lower back. We were tempted to rush her back to play so she could attend the A1 camp at the OTC in Colorado, but when the doctor said she was pushing her 13 yr old body to a level it wasn’t ready for, we decided not to. As her parents, we felt horrible…we should’ve realized that. But being former Div 1 collegiate athletes, myself on a team that won 2 national championships and her father with a couple years in the CFL, we didn’t know any other way but to suck it up and push through, so we kept supporting her. After 3 months, she returned to play high school ball followed by years of high level club ball, and later blessed to play collegiate vb. During her second season of college ball it started to hurt again. Fortunately this time we knew exactly what to do. We first had to explain it to her college coach and trainer. They were very supportive. She saw a physical therapist who used the Active Release Technique on her. It was the only rehab that worked. She never missed a season again and finished her years at the University of Hawaii. But more importantly, I write this to parents. We learned to listen to our kids. We learned how to best support our athletic children by listening to THEIR bodies not our “suck it up” mentality. She continues to be involved in volleyball as a club coach. The experience with her back led us to seek natural supplements to help her stay on the court and maintain her body through rigorous training, that’s when we found Kyani. Kyani is an Alaskan word that means “Strong Medicine”. It’s just 3 all natural products that give the body all the nutrients it needs to maintain a high level of performance. It’s an anti oxidant, reduces inflammation in the body, helps the body produce it’s own Nitric Oxide, and many other benefits. This is not a commercial for either ART nor Kyani, but it works. So if you’re interested in hearing more about Kyani go to csatele.kyani.net. God Bless:)

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    1. Mahalo for sharing Lee Ann, I never knew of her pain, you could never tell. What a testament to the upbringing you gave your keiki. I miss the days of watching y’all play and being out on the court with y’all at open gym (Tita, Mahina, Diana) maybe one day I’ll see y’all in the masters division lol. I will definitely look into Kyani, mahalo a me malama Pono 🙂

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  9. thank you for sharing your story. I myself also broke my back playing college volleyball. I also ignored it until after playoffs. Funny how all you need is a break! Matter, my break (no pun intended) I too became stronger, faster and better. I really can relate and want to wish you the best of luck!

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  10. Thank you for sharing your journey. You hit the nail on the head, unfortunately, it is hard to find the right coaches that will support athletes by giving their bodies a break. Overtraining is counterproductice and is as useful and undertraining. 🙂 I wish there was a mandatory down time required by the sport. Thank you again for sharing…maybe you could lead the path to changes for future athletes!

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  11. You truly are a great athlete and a great genuinely nice humble person. It takes lots of courage to go through what u went through and many should learn from ur experience. I am a big fan of yours and look forward to seeing u on the court and hopefully one day be in the same court with the USA national team for the next Olympics. You truly deserve to be in the same category as Tara cross battle, Logan Tom, Jordan Larson , Tayiba Haneef park and all the other great hitters that represent team USA. Wish u all the success. Ps I met you last year during the men’s game and u were so sweet and nice letting me take a pic with you.

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