by Grace Sousa and John Timko
photo(s) by Emma Zhang and Tate Slater (print)
Injury was the last thing on Olivia Sousa’s mind as a senior and captain of American International College’s (AIC) Women’s Division II soccer team. Her team was on its way to New Hampshire for an away game against Franklin Pierce University; the weather was perfect, and the energy was high.
AIC was down 0-3 at the end of the first half, putting Sousa, the team’s starting goalie, in a key spot: she could not concede any more goals while her team fought for a comeback.
Amid the chaos of coaches shouting at players, parents arguing with the referee and teammates cheering on the sidelines, Sousa jumped up to grab the ball as it flew across the goal. She did not see an opponent running straight at her.
“[She] ran and whacked the outside of my thigh, and I blacked out. It was one of the worst pains of my life,” she said.
After regaining consciousness, her immediate thought was whether or not the other team had scored, rather than thinking about her own injury.
“My first thought was ‘Oh my God, did the ball go in the net?’, and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t breathe’,” she said.
Later, Sousa learned that she had gotten a hematoma (extreme bruising) on her thigh that spread throughout her leg, and a career-ending injury developed in a matter of seconds.
Despite this, Sousa tried to return to the pitch.
“I had to be on crutches for months,” she said. “I would’ve finished the season if my trainer let me. I even tried to come back for senior night.”
With high standards and a success-driven environment, athletes feel forced to play through injuries. When they do, they lose sight of the importance of their physical and mental health. They are fixated on playing the game instead of taking care of themselves.
American Sports Culture
As early as five years old, children participate in a variety of highly competitive town and club sports, where the expectation is to win above all else. Later on, this expectation carries over, encouraging players to sacrifice their own physical health for the game.
The pressure to win and compete, even if it means toughing out the physical pain, is inevitable in high-level athletics and deeply rooted in our society. This pressure has plagued young, non-professional athletes with the idea that sport takes precedence over physical health.
Senior and Division II football player at AIC Tyler Gardener said that having a victory-based mindset is crucial for success.
“The ‘need to win’ is a form of mentality you must have as a player,” he said. “If you push yourself through the pain, it can make you mentally stronger.”
However, guidance counselor, junior varsity girls soccer and girls track team coach Ariel Kenyon said that glorifying fighting through pain is a misidentification of bravery and strength.
“There’s this badge of honor you get if you push through really tough times, [but] if you are injured physically or having mental health challenges, pushing through and toughing it out makes it worse,” she said, “People get caught up in being resilient and tough, but you’re actually resilient and tough by taking care of yourself.”
Coaches, teammates and parents place excessive expectations on athletes to compete and win, especially those at a high level. Attempts to meet these imposed expectations play a large role in why athletes neglect their physical health.
Senior and varsity football captain Graham Tonkonogy said the greater the responsibility an athlete has within the team, the greater the expectations are for them to secure the win.
“A lot of the cases where people play through injury is when someone is scared that their teammates need them on the team,” he said. “If you’re a starter, then most of the time you don’t sit out because there aren’t backups.”
When backups do play, Kenyon said they can feel increased pressure in the limited opportunities they have to prove themselves as worthy players.
“Even for people who are not injured but are on the bench a lot, they don’t feel as much a part of the team if they’re not out there playing,” she said. “People want to contribute to the team, and if they can’t contribute they feel unfulfilled.”
Parental hopes can help drive an athlete’s desire to get back in the game post-injury.
Football, basketball and girls softball coach David Foster said that as a parent, he recognizes how kids feel pressure to play certain sports that their parents enroll them in.
“A lot of parents think their kid is the next big thing and are gassing them up when in reality the kid thinks, ‘I have to play because my parents pay [for the sport],” he said.
Senior and varsity soccer player Juliana Gomez Reynoso said that she wants to return from injury as quickly as possible to reward her mother’s support.
“I just want to get back to playing to show her that I’m better and that she helped me get back to my full potential,” she said.
Tony Montiero, personal trainer for athletes with physical fitness goals, said that external pressures can pile up and cause athletes to lose sight of themselves.
“When everyone around is passionate about the sport, you tell yourself you love it too, but you have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really love it?’,” he said. “Then, because [athletes] are used to training for so long, there’s an aspect of people not wanting to stop and rest.”
Athletes also push through injury as they jockey for positions, not only on their team, but potentially for athletic opportunities to attend high-profile colleges.
High school athletes are competing for an extremely limited number of spots. According to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA), across all sports, only 7% of high school athletes go on to play in college, and less than 2% go on to play at NCAA Division I colleges.
Sophomore and varsity soccer player Lindsay Glass said she wouldn’t take time off from playing if it could hurt her chances of being recruited.
“I love soccer, and I want to continue to play throughout college,” she said. “Players are trying to get recruited right now, [and] you’re trying to send applications, so taking time off would be really stressful.”
Tonkonogy said that players can feel as if having an injury during recruitment season will drive coaches away.
“[Injuries] slow everything down because instead of focusing on getting better, you have to focus on getting back to where you were and then you can get better,” he said. “[An injury] could drive a coach away because they think that you lost [your skills].”
Foster said that athletes who disregard their health and refuse to sit a game out could put their entire athletic careers in jeopardy.
“Don’t ruin your career over one game. You have your whole career to play,” he said. “The scouts know you’re injured, so you’re not going to lose your scholarship, but you are gonna lose it if you keep playing on your broken ankle or your twisted toe.”
Loss of Identity
Dedicating hours to their team and game, athletes often find their sports becoming their main focus and fusing into their identities.
Gardener said that his sport offers him an outlet to deal with stressors in his life.
“[Playing] sports has helped me mentally because it allows me to express myself on the field and get away from problems for that amount of time during a game,” he said. “It pushes me to keep playing because I love spending time with my teammates.”
While athletics can bring peace of mind and benefit mental health, tying identity to a sport can be risky because it can lead to dependence and consume somebody’s life.
Reynoso said that a concussion she got during her soccer season highlighted the fragility of her sports identity.
“On Monday I was [playing soccer] and now all of a sudden, there’s a Wednesday game and I’m out. It puts in perspective how quickly things can change,” she said.
Montiero said that sports become so integral to an athlete’s life and identity that taking time to recover from an injury is frightening.
“[Athletes] get lost in that mindset, and it becomes who they are,” he said. “If they lose that, the identity that they’ve been working towards for the last months through grueling training, there’s a sense of ‘now what?’”
Sousa said that her identity assimilated with sports so deeply that once her soccer career ended after graduation, she struggled to understand herself.
“My sport was part of my identity. Still, when people ask me about myself and what I did in life, I always bring up soccer,” she said. “I don’t have an end goal anymore. I don’t know what to do with myself sometimes. My life is gone and my identity is gone.”
Although athletes may push through injuries and continue playing by choice, coaches and school systems must teach players about their bodies and how to take care of them.
South girls and boys freshman volleyball coach Jose Camacho-Hernandez said that high-pressure environments start with the level of training and competition that student-athletes endure.
“It’s totally irresponsible. We are putting these high school kids, with goals in life, [into practice] every afternoon for two hours without rest,” he said. “Where is the recovery time?”
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), athletes who engage in high-intensity exercise should schedule a rest day every seven to 10 days, and some athletes may need more frequent rest days, such as two per week.
Camacho-Hernandez said that in places with different sports cultures, such as his native Puerto Rico, the practice schedule operates so that teams only practice every other day, allowing players rest and time to keep up with schoolwork and familial responsibilities. He said that American high schools ought to incorporate more athlete-friendly tactics.
“We are a top nation in the world, and we should be doing those kinds of things a little bit better,” he said. “Sometimes you have to look outside the box. What can other countries offer? What are they doing? Can we copy some of those good things?”
Montiero said that the overarching issue is that athletes need to recognize the value of longevity to avoid the temptation to play through injury.
“Athletes have to think about what’s going to happen next. Is it more important for them to keep training throughout the season or go really hard while they are injured?” he said. “Longevity is important and most athletes won’t understand that until they have that ACL tear, broken ankle or fractured arm.”
Mentally Strong Athlete
Along with caring for their body physically, athletes must work on their mental game, so that when pressures to play through injury arise, they can make the conscious decision to protect their well-being.
Montiero said that part of the reason players don’t acknowledge that they need rest is because they don’t have the mental strength to put themselves first.
“[Athletes] need a better mindset to curb the temptation of playing through injuries,” he said. “It all boils down to knowing when your body has had enough and not giving in to the urge to keep playing.”
Wellness teacher and former athletic trainer Patrick Jordan Quern said that while many athletes worry about letting their teammates down, changing the narrative and trusting teammates to step up can contribute to a team’s overall success.
“You can flip it and say, ‘I’m not 100%, I should let the next person up’,” he said. “[They can] have an opportunity to fill that spot so that I’m not a liability on the field, on the ice, on the court or on the track.”
Gardener said that to excel as a player, athletes have to first establish a mentality that can help them navigate the tough times of athletic journeys.
“What it means to be an athlete to me is being able to handle the highs and lows of the sport you play,” he said. “Learning how to tune out outside noise is definitely a big factor. The first step in becoming a good athlete is having a strong mentality.”
If athletes, and their coaches and teammates, are taught how to protect their mental health, then they can also learn to protect their physical health.
“You need emotional and mental strength to have physical strength, and usually that’s going to change everything,” Montiero said. “Self-awareness and understanding that your well-being is way more important than pushing yourself is crucial. [Athletes] have to figure out why they are pushing themselves: for the glory or for something attainable to work towards. You have to be aware of the intangible things because they matter the most.”