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Achilles Heal: How to deal with setbacks and injuries

MY SETBACK

Thank god I didn’t hear it.

People say it sounds like a gunshot. And frankly, that’s what it feels like. The pain is awful, but the sound… there can’t be a worse sound than hearing your own tendons snap.

‘March 1st, 2018’ read the date at the top of my hospital report. ‘Full rupture of the left Achilles tendon.’ The doctors handwriting was a smooth scrawl like he’d seen my injury a thousand times already and it meant nothing to him.

If I had been writing the page would have jagged words, sharp punctures for the full stops, and tear stains. A lot of tear stains.

The injury he’d seen a thousand times, may have just ruined my entire sporting career. Certainly, my entire sporting year.

An hour earlier I’d been at the gym, racing fifteen other early-risers and the clock in an effort to get fitter and stronger.

The workout was simple. As many sit-ups as you can do in a minute. As many box jumps as you can do in the second minute. And as many squats as you can do in the third minute. Repeat this circuit for twelve minutes.

Jump.

Up. Down. Up. Down. It was minute five of the workout, my second round of box jumps. I was winning. Up. Down. Up. Down. A steady rhythm. A movement I’d done a million reps of in the past. No thoughts except the push to go faster. And faster. Music blaring. Breath sawing in and out. Pulse thumping in my throat. Legs feeling powerful. Strong. Sweat flicking from my forehead to the floor on each rep. Just a few more to go…

…Snap.

That’s how quickly my life changed.

The recovery time for an Achilles rupture is nine to twelve months. A whole year. A huge set-back for any athlete, particularly one who was about to turn 30 and only has a limited number of years left at a high level.

Tendon injuries are strange. After the initial pain, you don’t feel much. It doesn’t hurt – physically at least.

Mentally, I was definitely hurt. Beyond hurt. I was utterly devastated, crying uncontrollably and inconsolable. Every time I looked at my crutches I was reminded of how far away I was from walking, let alone playing beach volleyball again.

I spent 3 weeks in plaster. 5 weeks in a moon boot. Then months of limping around in shoes. I wasn’t allowed to even walk on the sand for 4 months. I couldn’t jump until almost 8 months had passed. I couldn’t contemplate a tournament until the 9 month mark.

WHEN OTHER’S FACE SETBACKS – WHAT NOT TO DO…

All those platitudes people offer when you face a setback… I’ve resolved to never to say them to anyone else. The next person to tell me one of the following may not survive the encounter

‘You’ll come back stronger for it.’ Yeah, no. Physically I’ll likely never be as strong as I was, and psychologically, I figure I don’t need a 9 month lesson in mental toughness. If 20 years of elite sport haven’t given me some mental toughness then I have no business being an athlete.

‘It’s a chance to work on your weaknesses.’ First of all, it’s hard to work on a weakness when you can’t even stand up properly. Second, I could have worked on my weaknesses without getting injured. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.

‘You can focus on the other areas of your life for a change.’ Hmmm, true, but when you’ve consciously prioritised sport as your primary pursuit for this phase of life, you don’t want to focus on other areas. I figure there is plenty of time to do that when I retire from sport in a few year’s time.

‘You got injured because of your unresolved emotions.’ (Often espoused by new age life coaches and NLP practitioners who think that all injuries and illnesses are a result of your own mind and emotions.) F*** off. You’re implying that I didn’t do everything in my power to be the best athlete I could be, including working on my mental state. Athletes get injured at much higher rates than the general population – surely we aren’t all emotional wrecks (or at least more wrecked than the general population) walking around waiting for our tendons to snap.

‘You’ll be better before you know it.’ Hell no. Every single day of rehab is a slog, and every day of my recovery the remaining time stretched out interminably in front of me. I’ve spent hundreds of hours doing rehab, and I’ll probably have to keep doing it for the rest of my life. I’m already over calf raises in all their different varieties, but I know I’ll never see the end of them.

‘Everything happens for a reason.’ Really? Who’s reason? Certainly not mine. Maybe my competitor’s? To believe this sentence means abdicating responsibility for your own life outcomes – if someone else is in control may as well give up now.

‘The universe only gives you what you can handle.’ Even if the universe were sentient, I hardly think it would be bothered about my insignificant human life (one of 6 billion), on tiny planet Earth (one of 30 billion planets in our galaxy alone), in our lonely galaxy (one of 100 billion of the observable galaxies). Also, if you follow this logic, the ‘universe’ kills people all the time – think car accidents, health conditions and natural disasters – which is obviously more than those people could handle.

Ok, rant over. Basically, don’t offer any of these platitudes to those suffering setbacks.

To leave you with something more useful, here are the things that actually helped me get through this setback. I hope you never have to apply this list to your own achilles rupture, but perhaps they’ll prove useful for setbacks of less serious (and less painful!) varieties.

WHEN YOU FACE SETBACKS – WHAT TO DO…

  • Distract yourself. When crap happens, your initial reaction is emotional and you aren’t in a great place to make decisions about the future. Spend a day or two distracting yourself to give yourself that bit of mental space to look at your situation a slightly more rationally. The day I snapped my achilles I did my tax, sorted 10 years’ worth of photos, emptied my email inbox, and updated my resume. If nothing else, injuries are great for productivity.
  • Don’t eat your feelings. Chocolate makes everything better, except your abs. Fortunately, it was so much effort to hop to the kitchen on crutches that I was forced to diet! Wallow for a few days, but ditch the junk food if you’re injured, sad, sick or facing a setback.
  • Instead, exercise. You’ll need those endorphins to combat the depression you’re feeling. I was back in the gym 2 days after my achilles rupture, and for months I pushed my strength and conditioning coach to the limits of creativity to come up with workouts that didn’t involve standing up.
  • Book a holiday. Having something to look forward to helps immensely. I figured I may as well be limping around Europe in summer, rather than limping around Melbourne in winter.
  • Learn something. I struggled with feeling like I wasn’t improving in my sport, instead I was simply expending a lot of effort trying to get back to my former level. Learning something in another area of my life made me feel like I was still growing, and as they say progress = happiness. I did courses in photography, NLP, and speaking, attended a few businesses conferences, and read about 30 non-fiction books.
  • Stay in touch with your group. Part of why I love sport is the friends and connections I’ve made through it. When you’re injured you can’t train so suddenly all those people are no longer part of your life. Make the effort to see them – turn up and watch training sessions, make plans outside of sport, go to events and so on.
  • Keep your coach. When I first told my coach about my achilles rupture he said ‘I’m in. However long it takes, and if we have to shift our goals back, I’m still here to coach you.’ That meant the world, and I still appreciate those words. Having your coach monitoring your progress, expecting you to get back to full speed, and pushing you to uncomfortable levels will help ensure you do get back to 100% as fast as possible.
  • Use your spare time productively. Even though I went to the gym almost every day while injured, I still had about an extra 15 hours a week free that I used to spend on the beach. Don’t waste that extra time. When you are back to normal, you’ll look back on all that time you had and berate yourself for not using it productively. It might be building more friendships, working on a new project, starting a business or something else – you decide what a good use of time is. It’s not more Netflix.
  • Find a success story. I spent hours on Google looking for other athletes who had injured their achilles tendons. David Beckham. Kobe Bryant. Misty May-Treanor. All of them came back and continued winning. Misty won another Olympic beach volleyball gold medal after her injury – so maybe that’s in my future too!
  • Reassess what you really want. A setback forces you to reconsider your goals. Do I really want to spend almost all my time and money pursuing a sport for the next 5-7 years? When you are caught up in the routine of training, competing, and working you rarely stop to consider this question. But in the absence of this, I had the chance to consider whether I missed the sport, and whether it was worth it. There is an opportunity cost to everything, and as an athlete the opportunity cost (in terms of missed relationships, career, friendships, income etc) is particularly high. I thought long and hard about this question and in the end decided I not only loved what I do, but I would regret not giving it my full effort.

There’s nothing ground breaking in this list, but it can be a helpful reminder in a turbulent emotional time.

MY COMEBACK…

Today is Christmas day. It’s also 9 months and 24 days since I snapped my achilles tendon. I’ve been counting. I’ve done 145 gym sessions. Been to 56 appointments – physio, exercise physiologist, orthopaedic surgeon, chiropractic, osteopath, myotherapy and massage (I didn’t want to add up how much I spent!). Done over 2500 calf raises. And cried uncountable tears.

Before the family came over for celebrations, food and presents, I enjoyed the best gift of the year… two hours of beach volleyball games in glorious Melbourne sunshine. I can finally play again. And I sure don’t take it for granted.

Run. Dive. Serve. Hit. Set. Sprint. Attack. Jump.

Smile.

That’s how slowly my life changed.

December 30, 2018