Making A Comeback Post Injury

Kobe Bryant once said, “Turn every setback into a come back.” That is how you face adversity. Injuries, as most athletes know, are just another part of the game. But as an athlete, you do not have to be defined by your injuries or setbacks. What if you define yourself by your come back? How you kept going when the going got tough or how you pushed past the pain. Making a come back post injury is easier said than done, as I can unfortunately say firsthand. There is fear. There is doubt. There is so much pain that comes along with injuries that can make you want to give up. But that’s the thing: you can never give up. You can never let this injury define you. One of the most important aspects that they do not always tell you when it comes to injuries is that your mental state is the most important factor when determining whether or not you as an athlete will make a comeback to your sport post injury. Your mental game has to be just as strong, if not stronger, than your physical game. In this week’s blog post from Innovative Sports Nutrition, we are talking about how athletes can make a comeback post injury, and what it takes to turn these setbacks you may face, into comebacks. 

My Personal Experience with Injuries

If you have read some of the other blog post’s from Innovative Sports Nutrition, you may already know that I am a former division 1 volleyball player. I was a member of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville’s volleyball program for all four of my undergraduate years in college. Now, I say member because if I were to tell you that I played volleyball at SIUe for four years, it would be a bit of a stretch regarding my personal experience. Of the four years there, I was able to participate in matches for roughly one of those four years. Crazy, right? It is crazy to think that I spent more time on the sidelines of games, as an injury-reserve player, rather than being dressed and ready to perform as a healthy player. 

Injuries, as I mentioned earlier, are another part of the game, and I did not figure that out until I spent my time as a cougar. After my freshman season of college volleyball, after starting, earning a conference newcomer of the week honor, and feeling on top of the world, I underwent knee surgery that following spring. Then, three months after that knee surgery, I had to undergo another surgery, an emergency abdominal surgery. Those two surgeries together put me out my sophomore season of volleyball. I underwent rehab and worked my way back to seeing the court that following spring. However, a couple months into that semester, before we even had the chance to participate in any spring matches, COVID hit us like a storm. With the outlash of this terrible virus, school was pushed online for the remainder of that semester, summer, and even into the fall of that next school year. Our volleyball season was canceled that fall, along with every other sports season, and was rescheduled for the next spring. 

So as I started the 2021 spring semester of my junior year, we were finally able to participate in a not-so-ordinary regular season of conference play, which was when my back pain kicked itself into full speed. Just a few weeks into the spring season, my back pain was becoming unbearable, so I received some scans and found out I had fractures in my vertebrae and bulging discs that are compressing and inching towards my spinal cord. I was out for the remainder of that season, once again as an injury reserve player. From that point on I had to wear a long, plastic back brace for that entire summer heading into my senior year, which restricted me to no physical activity at all. At this point in my career, I was hanging on by a thread. All summer I had worn this back brace, hoping that when August rolled around I would be healed, getting back into practices, and working to compete for the first time in what had felt like years. 

One Final Bang

Well finally, when August rolled around, we got into preseason, and at this point I had been rehabbing and working my tail off the past few weeks to get stronger and ready for live play. I was finally cleared to participate in games come the end of August. We traveled to Loyola University-Chicago for a preseason tournament that first weekend of September. Thrilled was an understatement; after all it was my senior season and I could not have been happier. It was game day and I subbed in during the second set of our Saturday match versus Eastern Kentucky University. My nerves were through the roof because I could not even remember what it felt like to play in an actual collegiate match. I calmed them down, rushed onto the floor, and got into game mode. I get set once or twice, get a kill, jump up for a few blocks, am feeling good- better than ever actually, and am having fun. I only played front row that set, so I sub back out and cheered along the sideline until I went back again. However, what I did not expect the next time getting subbed in, was that my next swing would be my career-ending one. I went back in, geared up and ready to go. I was transitioning for a ball in play off the outside. My setter set me the ball, I jumped up for what felt like the highest I’ve jumped in years, attacked the ball, but lost my balance in the air and came down on my left leg only. I immediately heard and felt the pop in my left knee and fell to the floor. The pain kicked in an all-too familiar way. Suddenly the noises, screaming, and cheering of the other players and fans around me fell silent. My trainer and assistant coach at the time, carried me off of the floor, and that was it. That was the end of my senior season and collegiate volleyball career as a whole. I did, however, get a kill off that swing. I went out with one final bang.

The Ultimate Mental Toughness Test: Saying No As An Athlete.

It may sound like I’m contradicting what I said earlier about not allowing your injuries to define you, and about how you can never give in or give up when it comes to these injuries. However, in my case, I was not merely giving in to my injury at the time. I did want to make another comeback considering I had another two years of eligibility left, however sometimes tough decisions need to be made. To have the willpower to accept that my time as a volleyball player needed to come to an end, for the sake of my own personal health and well-being, was a tough mental decision. Sometimes, comebacks from injuries do not always have to mean coming back to your sport competitively. Sometimes that can mean coming back to your healthy, injury-free self, so that later on in your life you may still be able to participate in sports and activities you love. 

How to Come Back Stronger, Mentally

Maybe you’re currently in a similar situation or have been there yourself. After reflecting on my experience dealing with injuries, and reading or hearing about others’ experiences coming back from injuries, I have brainstormed a few tips to help your mental side of the game when it comes to facing adversity headstrong and working towards recovery. Below I have listed these tips to help you through it and make a comeback: 

  • Feel every emotion. Whatever your loss may be, you first have to allow yourself to feel it, completely, in order to move forward with it. 
  • Accept the reality of it. Do not focus on what you could have done, should have done, or wish you had only done. You have to accept what happened to you in order to move forward with it.
  • Learn from it. No more “ifs, and, or buts.” What can you learn from this experience?
  • Rehab it out. I am not just talking about physical rehab here, but mental rehab, too. Visualize yourself playing your sport so that you can really see and feel it, in a good sense. Visualize your injury healing, too.
  • Plant new goals for yourself. Base these new goals off of your current rehab and how your body feels mentally and physically at the time.
  • Remain positive! This is one of the most important things you can do when dealing with an injury.

How to Come Back Stronger, Physically

Some of these tips may seem repetitive when comparing them to my last paragraph on how to come back strong mentally, however they are nevertheless just as important when considering your physical recovery process from an injury. Below I have listed some tips on how to physically heal the best you possibly can when coming back from an injury.

  • DO NOT RUSH THE PROCESS. Trust it. This is huge. Take as much time as your body needs to heal and recover so that you can come back even stronger than before. 
  • Listen to your body. If you are pushing through a rehab exercise and it’s not feeling good, stop. Do not rush it. Listen to your body when you feel pain. Pain is the body’s way of telling you that something isn’t right.
  • Stick to the rehab program you were given. Don’t deviate from it, or try to do more than what you were told to do. Odds are, whoever gave you this program knows what they are talking about when it comes to recovering from your injury. 
  • Ask for help. If you ever need assistance with an exercise, are not sure what exactly to do, or do not understand a certain part of your return-to-play protocol, ask someone. Do not just try to figure it out on your own.
  • Do not isolate yourself. Having a support system around you at most times during your rehab and return-to-play protocol is one of the biggest blessings. You are not alone in your injury. Accept the praise from those around you who want to see you recover and succeed.
  • Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. You cannot control how quickly your muscle, bone, tendon, or whatever it may be, will heal. Focus on what you can control: your rehab, your mental game, your nutrition, and so on. 
  • Set goals that are tangible. Setting tangible goals helps during the recovery process because you will be able to physically see and feel how much improvement you are making. Be proud of yourself when you reach these goals. 

The Comeback CAN be Stronger than the Setback

If you or someone you know is recovering from a sports-related injury, try to help them implement some of these tips into their recovery process if they haven’t already. Your mind and your body work as a collective unit. They are rooting for each other. Just like you have to trust your teammates if you are a part of a team, your mind has to trust that your body will do everything it possibly can to heal itself and return back to normal. Injuries are no joke, and the recovery process can be very challenging, you may even be tested once or twice during it. But that is the key to recovery: resiliency. Are you going to back down when things get hard? This comeback you are trudging through CAN be stronger than what sets you back if you are willing to work through it, stay positive, and never, ever give up on yourself or the process.

What’s the hardest thing, mental or physical that you had to overcome in your career? 

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