It happened in an instant.
NBA superstar Kobe Bryant was at the top of the key attempting to make a move that he has made thousands of times since the first time he had ever picked up a basketball.
But this time was different.
This time, Bryant made his move in a manner just fractionally different than he had in the past. It could have been the result of any number of things. Maybe he shifted his weight differently. Maybe he twisted his knees just a touch more than he should have. Maybe it was an indication that his then 34-year-old body could not take the same amount of physical stress that he was used to giving it.
No matter what the definitive cause was, that move, that Bryant has made thousands of times, caused him to tear the his left Achilles tendon.
In a postgame interview, a tearful Bryant discussed his feelings regarding his injury.
“I’m upset and dejected, thinking about this mountain [that I have to] overcome, I mean, this is a long process,” Bryant said. “[I] wasn’t sure I could do it, [but] the kids walk in, and I’ve got to set an example.”
Injuries, such as the one Bryant suffered on April 12, 2013, happen to athletes very regularly and, as evidenced by Bryant’s emotional interview, it affects athletes on more than just a physical level.
Athletes like Bryant dedicate most of their lives to training for their respective sport, but training is much more than physical conditioning. Sure, they obviously need to be at the peak of their physical abilities in order to compete, or their talent would regress. But being a competitive athlete, whether you are a high school kid or an Olympian, requires one to have mental and emotional stability, on and off the court, field or rink.
Athletes with the pedigree necessary to compete, regardless of what level they are competing in, have to be able to control their emotions, or their talent will be useless. If you take the best athlete, with the best skills, in any sport and take away their emotional and mental focus, they will not be able to compete. Former UCLA football coach Henry Russell “Red” Sanders once said “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing,” and that, for all intents and purposes, is true.
If you are not playing to win, then you might as well not play at all.
Sanders’ quote rings true for most, if not all athletes competing at a high level. Once that is taken into consideration, the psychological strain that accompanies injuries becomes much more apparent.
Robert Moss is a professor and the chair for the Albion College exercise science and athletic training department. He attributes some of the pressure to return after injuries that athletes feel to the potential of losing their spot to on the team to another player.
“Sometimes coaches put pressure on athletes,” Moss said. “They’ll sometimes say ‘so-and-so is taking your place, they’re doing really well.’ Some would say it somewhat teasingly, but some would say it to light a fire under them, but, maybe, when there shouldn’t be a fire lit because the [athlete] is not capable of doing the things the coach thinks they are.”
In all athletic competitions, there is an inherent pressure on the athletes to perform to the standard of their abilities and sometimes beyond that. Athletes that can overcome that pressure are almost always the most successful. When an athlete is injured, however, that pressure to perform is transformed drastically.
Not only do they now have to focus on rehabilitation, but they have to be able to perform at least close to the way they did before.
Dr. Jim Johnson of Panorama Orthopedics, is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and is also certified in sports medicine. He believes that, though it is possible to make a full physical recovery from many injuries, regaining the ability to compete at the level prior to the injury is much harder.
“Injuries are both physical and mental,” Johnson said. “Before injuries, athletes do the things they do – running routes [in football], shooting baskets, making turns on slopes – without thinking, because they’ve spent their entire lives doing them that way. It’s second nature for them. But when athletes get injured, it stops being automatic because now they’re thinking about what and how they’re doing whatever it is that they used to so naturally.”
One athlete in particular was able to overcome all of these obstacles following a horrific injury. On Dec. 26, 2011, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee, effectively ending his season. He returned the following season after a very quick recovery.
But it was not the fact that he returned so quickly that was most impressive for Peterson. It was how he returned.
During the 2012 NFL season, Peterson shocked football fans across the country, recording the best statistical season of his career and winning the NFL Most Valuable Player award. Peterson recorded 2,097 rushing yards, just eight yards shy of the single season rushing record.
Though Peterson’s recovery and subsequent success is an inspiring story, he set a standard for recovery that all fans want, but few, if any, athletes can achieve.
John Forsyth, Chesaning sophomore, was a member of the Albion College cross country and track teams before he found out that he sustained a season ending injury that will require surgery, likely ending his career as a collegiate runner. For Forsyth, running was more than just competition.
“For me, running has been somewhat of a stress reliever on top of just me competing,” Forsyth said. “I started doing [physical] therapy, but I didn’t think it was helping all that much. I also started seeing a counselor because I was really off emotionally because I didn’t have that release.”
Although Forsyth most likely will not be able to run competitively at Albion again, he is remaining positive, looking at this as an opportunity to focus more on academics and personal relationships.
Athletic competition has been a fixture of entertainment for much of human history. Athletes love to compete and fans love to watch and support their favorite teams and players. Many fans get upset when players on their favorite teams get injured, but most of them forget to wonder what that means for the specific athlete. They get upset that their favorite teams’ success will be hindered for months or even years as a result.
For athletes, their bodies and minds can be hindered forever – and it happens in an instant.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons