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.
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.
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.
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.
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.