by Grace Sousa, Sports Reporter
graphic by Adrienne Lirio
Injuries stink. What stinks even more are all the remarks. There’s nothing worse than hearing “Aw, I’m so sorry,” and “Feel better!” and “We miss playing with you,” shadowing your footsteps as you walk off of the field. I know people say it to be sympathetic, but it’s those seemingly-encouraging remarks that make you feel even worse sometimes.
The trainers, doctors and time off may help physically, but no one ever mentions how difficult it is to mentally recover from an injury, when all you can do is watch your teammates devoured by the game while you sit on the bleachers.
As a sophomore on the girls varsity soccer team, injury was the last thing on my mind on Sept. 19. It was the perfect weather to play, and my teammates hyped each other up on the way to Boston Latin, where we were headed for an away game. While coaches shouted at players, parents argued with the referee and players cheered on in the sidelines, I stepped forward to win the ball in the air. What I didn’t see was an opponent pushing me onto my back.
My head slammed into the ground. Sharp pain and confusion immediately followed, and everything momentarily went hazy. Knowing that the MIAA guidelines would force me to step off of the field since I hit my head, I tried to disregard the pain. After a visit to the trainer, I was given news of a concussion and was told I needed a full week before playing again.
The week I spent off the field had mental health effects I failed to anticipate. Despite having suffered greater injuries that have kept me out for six to nine months, this singular week greatly affected me.
My trainer outlined a series of steps for me to safely return to playing, the first day being that I rest completely. I was restricted from all physical activity, and to avoid tension headaches, which caused pain all over my body, I could not participate in anything that required concentration.
I went to my team’s practice during this first day of rest because I thought it was my duty to be there for my teammates and friends. Watching people play the sport I loved but couldn’t participate in was extremely hard for me. All I wanted to do was run onto the field.
The second and third days of my recovery schedule were similar, but this time, I was allowed to run a couple of laps around the track. On the following day, I was authorized to participate in low intensity soccer drills. For those couple of days, I was not allowed to be involved with contact. Although the entire process was difficult, I was excited to finally interact with the ball again. I still tried my best to let go of the solitude and reminded myself to be grateful for getting back on the turf.
As I completed the week of recovery, a huge weight was lifted off of my shoulders: I could return to the team again. I was excited, but a little nervous. The loneliness that I felt still lingered, and it didn’t help when I realized that returning to play was just as hard as not being able to play.
Being a part of any high school sports team can be challenging for a multitude of reasons, particularly socially. With the already formed cliques and my brief time off, I couldn’t help but feel left out. When you’re not playing, you don’t actually feel like you’re on the team; of course, you cheer for the team’s successes and comfort them for their losses, but when your team wins those tough games, you don’t feel like you contributed.
Particularly when your teammates look through photos from the game and play back videos from the game, you don’t feel like you’re a part of it. This not only affects your mood at games, practices and get-togethers, but it can impact your frame of mind towards, well, everything.
Suddenly getting back into the full swing of things can also be detrimental to your mental health. Once you’re back on your feet and cleared to play, you’re full of excitement and relief. Except, being ready to play means having to work even harder since you missed so many practices and games.
The nerves start to kick in when you have the urge to prove to your coach that you deserve playing time, and you’re stuck in this mindset that you need to work even harder and play even better than anyone else on the field. With all of these emotions swirling around, it can feel extremely overwhelming and discouraging.
All athletes know that keeping a steady and positive mentality is crucial; you’re taught how to fuel your body, stretch and do the proper procedures to obtain a certain fitness level for your sport. But what about your mental strength? Coaches always make sure that you get a full practice in and do the dreaded fitness tests, but they rarely do anything to help your mental game.
Mental toughness is just as important as your skills on the playing field; in fact, inner strength can help you play even better. A good headspace helps you pick yourself up from mistakes, pushes you through tough games and practices and helps to manage emotions. Setbacks like injuries impact your mental well being, and this topic isn’t talked about enough.
There are so many reasons why athletes’ mental health isn’t discussed as much as it should be. In my 13 years of being an athlete, I’ve come to realize that the lack of discourse is due to the negative stigma around mental health issues. There is a societal expectation for athletes to be mentally strong people, which has further discouraged the pursuit of such conversations.
We all have a part to play, and we must start prioritizing players’ mental health in sports. The team, coaches and even athletes need to foster an environment that always encourages open discussions ranging from mental health to team dynamics.