As I truly begin my involvement with The ACL Club this fall season, it occurred to me that I have written about appreciating the game, but not about what it takes to get through an injury- whether that be an ACL reconstruction or any other type of devastation. And while I would love to be able to give my readers an exact formula or remedy, I can’t. Every athlete’s experience is different. Every athlete’s personality is different. And that might mean that my advice won’t work for everyone. I’m simply sharing what worked best for me in hopes that athletes everywhere can find my thoughts useful and helpful.
I noticed that the hardest part of each of my recovery processes was the month that followed surgery. For a week and a half, all I could really do was watch TV, read a book (which I never do otherwise), or go to physical therapy just to bend and straighten my leg. This left me more than enough time to fall in a very deep depression, seemingly drowning in my thoughts of playing and how long the next 6 months to a year were going to be. And even when I was walking, it was always so uncomfortable and as if I would never see a day of running without a limp again. After experiencing these feelings 5 different times, I would say that during the awkward and very frustrating month after surgery, it’s best to focus on small goals. If you’re constantly thinking about the end result, and imagining yourself on the field, time is going to go incredibly slow. Learn to appreciate the simple triumphs like walking without a limp, getting full extension and flexing, and being able to lift your leg using only the quadriceps. If you start setting your sights on the goals that are achievable within a reasonable amount of time, you’ll notice that your pride, confidence, and excitement start to return in increments.
And then there’s the three to four-month mark. By now you’re starting to briskly walk or jog and the recovery process is going to hasten a little bit. This is when you’re going to have to adopt some self-discipline. My therapists always reminded me not to get ahead of myself. This is where the newly reconstructed ACL is at its weakest. You’re going to feel ready to do more, and that’s great! But remember: the blood is just now starting to really circulate through that ligament. It’s new and it’s fragile. Don’t push your body farther than it’s willing to go. My best advice at this point is to listen to your gut. It’s going to tell you to take it easy, so relax and understand that there is still a long road ahead. Understand that with patience comes success. Trust me, taking it slow is going to be worth it when you’re playing without pain or set back a year down the road.
I’ll never forget the feeling of stepping back onto the field. It’s the most invigorating, incredible and terrifying feeling in the world. Every time I got to touch a ball, I felt this odd sensation of fear and excitement that would come together like this perfect combination of emotions. Remember, it’s good to be scared, but not too scared. And it’s good to be excited, but not too excited. Playing in fear is dangerous, but don’t be overzealous right when you step on the field. By this, I mean if you’re going to go into a tackle, don’t go in scared. And if you’re nervous at all, just don’t opt for the contact just yet. Play at your speed until you feel ready to jump back in with a vengeance. It’s okay to take your time. No one is rushing you, and if they are, they most likely have never experienced a serious injury before.
It’s going to be hard. There’s no doubt about it. You’re going to be sad, angry, excited, happy, and you’re going to feel these emotions in a way you have never felt them before in your year of recovery. But I am here to tell you that nothing is impossible, and every feeling is temporary. You’re going to struggle, but with that struggle comes strength. You’re going to have successes, but sometimes successes come with small setbacks. The worst thing you can do is lose your self-confidence. Find something that keeps you motivated. For me, it was setting a daily reminder on my phone that a college scholarship waited at the end of my journey. Find what invigorates you the most. Find what makes your skin crawl at the thought of failing. You are the key to your own recovery. Whether or not you succeed, and whether or not you grow as an athlete and a human being is completely up to you. Can you conquer this injury, and can you rise above the adversity to crush those who doubt you? Only you know the answer that.