By Arron MacDonald
Coach MacDonald saw his playing days end early due to an inability to stay healthy.
I need to start by pointing out a couple of things:
- This is not me seeking any sympathy for "what I've been through"... I got hurt playing basketball (a game I love), and whilst I can no longer play, worse things happen to countless people every day.
- I was an idiot when I got injured. I am completely aware of this. I have been for some time (Aware, that is, not an idiot - although I may shortly present evidence to the contrary....). If there was an instruction manual for getting over injuries, I balled it up and threw it away (presumably with my good arm).
- I was not a pro player. I was a reasonably good player, who played local league and National League and (before the injuries) had the opportunity to go to a Division 3 school in the states. My injuries diminished my playing ability significantly over time - however, this piece is not about me dredging up my "glory days"... it's quite the opposite.
I'm sharing this because I've spoken to several other players across different sports who've gotten hurt and have been forced to stop playing, and the similarities in our stories compelled me to share my thoughts on this with you.
Between the ages of 14 and 30 (when I played my final season), I had a lot of injuries.
While it wasn't my intention to list them, I think it may help to illustrate just what I put my body through in my efforts to lob a ball through a hoop, so starting from the top and working down:
- Multiple concussions
- Broken nose
- Chipped teeth
- 2 x Shoulder Surgeries (after multiple dislocations)
- Bone spurs in elbow
- Double fracture of wrist
- Broken hand
- Multiple Broken fingers and thumbs
- (Ongoing) Hip Flexor Problems
- Prolapsed Disc (and Ongoing Back Problems)
- Torn Groin, Hamstrings & Quads
- Hyper-extended knee
- Torn knee ligaments
- Torn ankle ligaments
- Torn achilles
- Broken metartarsal
- Broken toes
The running joke amongst my friends and team-mates is "If I were a horse, I'd be glue". The reality behind that is that I'd have probably "been glue" before I turned 20.
At the time, we don't consider the risk that this injury could be something we're dealing with for the rest of our lives - particularly if we don't rehab it properly - and as a younger player (until I'd dealt with a few serious injuries) I thought I was unbreakable, and would simply bounce right back.
In my head, the great players got to retire like MJ at the end of his second Bulls' run... final possession of a close game, ball in their hands, shot - release - swish. Cue buzzer, trophy, confetti... glory.
In reality, more of us retire like Charles Barkley:
"His bloodied left knee wrapped in ice, future NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley sat on a training table in the Houston Rockets' locker room at First Union Center tonight and began to cry as he talked to his wife on the phone.
"It's over," he said.
Barkley had intended to retire at the end of this season, but instead his 16-year career ended 10 minutes 51 seconds into tonight's 83-73 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers when he ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his left knee while trying to block a shot."
Like Barkley (and countless others), I hung on too long, only to miss the overwhelming majority of my last season due to injury - but that wasn't the only mistake I made as a player dealing with injuries, and I want to share some of the lessons I learned with you - in the hope that another player reading this doesn't have to hang up their boots so young.
Listen to Your Body
I grew up idolising Larry Bird - and others - who were lionised for playing through the pain barrier.
I thought that playing through pain was a rite of passage for players - and while that may be true for the top tier professionals playing through guaranteed multi-year contracts, or even players with guaranteed scholarships, there's no glory in doing this as an amateur who then has a responsibility to go to class (or work) the next day in a lot of pain and discomfort.
As a player-coach, I made this mistake even more frequently.
I believed that I couldn't possibly have asked anyone to do anything I wouldn't do myself, and as such, forced myself to play with a number of injuries.
The worst of these examples was a pair of Cup Finals - one as a player, and one as a player-coach. As a player, I played 24 hours after having another car run into the back of mine, and while pulling double-duty, I played one week after tearing my ankle ligaments.
After the accident, my back, neck and shoulders were ridiculously sore, and I could hardly move; and as for the ankle injury? My entire left leg was bruised purple and black up to my hip. I'd convinced a friend of mine who worked in a hospital to cast my ankle so that I could run on it - but I was in so much pain that I threw up pre-game and at half-time.
Needless to say, we lost both games, and I didn't play to anything close to my standards.
By not taking (painfully obvious) signs on-board about my condition, I set unrealistic expectations for myself - and fell short. Moreso though, I failed my team as a leader and a team-mate... not only because playing in that condition doubtlessly shortened my playing days with them and affected our chances of getting a positive result on the day, but also because it demonstrated that I didn't have the same faith in them to perform at 100% health as I did in me to perform at nothing close to "ok".
Take Rehab Seriously
Whether your physio is with the NHS, private health insurance or through your team... put the hours in.
In the years since my first shoulder surgery, I've really contemplated the time I spent in rehab, and my behaviours around the process.
At 20 years old, I genuinely believed my shoulder would simply "recover in time", and that one day, I would simply wake up - pain free - and have the strength in my shoulder that I'd had before the surgery.
I could not have been more wrong.
Considering the perpetual funding crisis in which the NHS finds itself, I should have realised that if the doctors say you need physiotherapy, it really is a necessity - and not something which is simply "nice to have".
I was not conscientious in my rehab. Instead of doing 20 reps of each exercise, each day... I'd do 40 every other day, or forget about them for a couple of days (but of course, fill my form out anyway to say that I'd done them in order to avoid the cross-examination from the therapist).
I'd then get frustrated at my slow progress whilst visiting the physio and rather than tell myself off for not putting in the work, I'd blame the physiotherapist - conning myself that it was somehow their fault for getting me to do exercises which didn't work.
My takeaway from this is that in rehab - like anything else in life - nobody else is going to do the work for you.
Fully Understand Your Condition - and your Limitations
Following my first shoulder surgery, I thought I would return to "normal".
After half-assing my physio, I returned to the gym and ramped-up my efforts to return to playing, and managed to have a couple of successful seasons, even playing some Senior National League basketball.
It was during this time I started to feel a lot of discomfort in my shoulder - but as I've already said, I didn't tend to listen to my body. So instead, I focused-in on working out with greater frequency, trying new techniques to build strength in the arm again.
There was a quote I heard from Kobe Bryant some time since which really summed up my mental state:
"My body can take the crutches, but my mind can't take the sideline."
Mentally, I could not accept for a moment that I was still not right - I just couldn't have more time out. I was in good shape and I convinced myself that whatever the problem was, I could work through it.
It was somewhere during that season when I realised there was a major problem - one which couldn't be seen past by painkillers, ice or gritting my teeth.
My shoulder - which had already been surgically stabilised - kept coming out of socket. The point of the surgical stabilisation was to prevent this - so whereas before the surgery this hurt a little, now it was agony. I lost count of the number of times it came out, but I started to lose sensation in my hand during the worst spells - it was a really frightening time.
I missed some time (foolishly telling myself again that rest and ice would help me get back), but played out the season.
Following the season I had another consultation with the physio, who told me flatly that there was nothing they could do, and I'd need to speak to a surgeon.
Much like the first ("open") surgery, I believed that this operation would be a keyhole procedure... and once again, I was wrong.
When I came to, groggy and sore, I thought I'd had a kicking - the surgeons told me it might feel like that for a while. I did. Physically and mentally, I was beaten. I've never felt quite so down as I did when I snapped this picture of myself a day or two after my second shoulder surgery.
During the second surgery, I was told that they "keep going" until they "find something good" to act as a foundation. What they found was that the stabilisation was torn - as was my shoulder capsule and rotator cuff, along with multiple tears in the cartilage which stabilises the shoulder from inside the joint; "it should look like a tiny block of marble" I was told, "yours looks like a chunk of velcro that a dog has chewed-up and spat-out".
In trying to gain strength, I'd jumped far too far ahead of myself, and my shoulder would never be the same again. Whilst I came back to play for a couple more seasons, I later discovered I'd had three screws put into the joint in order to keep it in place.
At the time of the surgery, I was 27 years old and had started the season superbly - despite the pain. This should have been a peak season for me as a player. Instead, before December, my season was over, and if I'd known the full extent of the condition of my shoulder post-surgery, my playing days would have been too.
None of this would have happened if I'd have listened to my body, and planned rest and recovery into my schedule during the season.
"Time Out" is not "Time Off"
As athletes, when we find out we're injured, it's in our nature to find out how quickly we can get back.
From there, our competitive nature can kick in as we try to "beat the clock".
Not only is rushing your rehab like this dangerous, but when the clock beats you, it's demotivating.
I'm not in good shape any more - and when I look at the combined time I spent out with my shoulder injuries alone (essentially two and a half years), it's really not surprising...
I treated "time out" like I was on holiday. I was fortunate enough to be paid full sick leave, and so (not having to pay for my fuel, lunches out, parking and all the other incidental expenses which come along with working every day, I put my feet up...
I watched movies and played Xbox. I ordered takeaways, ate sweets and drank too much of the things I shouldn't.
During that entire time off, I read zero books. I did no work on any side project. I didn't write and I barely coached.
I wallowed, and treated myself endlessly in an unsuccessful attempt to distract myself from the reality that I was physically broken, and (frankly) depressed at being in that situation (again).
Since then? I eat sensibly, I rarely drink and I exercise with greater frequency (albeit that lifting weights and running are all-but ruled out for me now) - and it's essentially made no difference.
By treating my time on the shelf as a holiday and putting pressure on myself to come back at the earliest juncture, I put myself into a no-win situation - and got depressed by my failure to overcome the insane odds I'd stacked against myself.
Knowing now what I know then, I'd want to know the average range of recovery times, and would tell myself relentlessly that I was only expected to come back at the latest of that range of times. I would use a recipe box or meal prep service to ensure that my diet remained consistent and healthy. I'd have invested in books rather than movies, and spent more times watching TED talks and studying than playing Xbox.
If You're Currently Injured...
As athletes, at some point in time, you will likely face a prolonged period of time on the shelf with an injury at some point in your playing career, regardless of the level you play at.
When that happens, despite you thinking that you can play through it, that the rehab is boring and unnecessary, that you have no limits or that you can just chill and wait it out... you can't.
It will catch up with you.
You also can't change what's happened to you, and there is really no value in moping and dwelling on it, wishing for what might have been.
I'd encourage you instead, to look at any prolonged period of time out as an opportunity for growth, and to try to do the following:
Whatever it is that's happened, take 2-3 days and rest up as much as you can... it will do you the world of good, and taking that time out gives you plenty of time to wrap your head around the situation and think through what happens next.
If you haven't already, read the books of Jon Gordon and Malcolm Gladwell - who will help you to not only be more positive, but also to think about what you're thinking, and how to change it. If you've already got through those, ask your coach to recommend some books - or tweet me, I'll happily share some ideas with you.
Continue to be a part of the team:
If it's feasible for you to be at training, be at training. Know the playbook inside-out and mentor a less confident team-mate, run the clock or scoreboard, talk to your team-mates...
It might be hard in the moment knowing that you can't join them on the floor - but by being there, communicating and supporting them, you're being a servant leader; but more than that, you're continuing to interact with your team and be a part of it - and it will motivate you to get back there.
Don't chuck the diet out of the window.
Don't just wallow in front of the telly or Xbox.
Do ensure you follow your rehab plan to the letter.
Set yourself a list of "SMART" daily goals - and do your best to achieve them every day.
There's one last story I have to share on the subject of discipline...
By the time I was getting over a prolapsed disc in my final season, I'd finally started to take this on-board...
I spent an hour a day stretching. I went for walks and listened to podcasts. I read books and wrote. I limited my screen time. Before I went to bed each night, I wrote a list of what I would accomplish the following day - it started with waking up at 6:30am every day, and making my bed.
By having a list of goals for me to accomplish every day, I had a purpose, and when I came back, it was easier for me to remain disciplined... the 6:30 alarm calls moved to 4:30am, when I got into the gym while everyone else slept for an hour and a half, on my own, and found my jumpshot again, determined to see the season out once I knew I was healthy enough to return.
After diligently rehabbing (for a change), I played the final two months of the season alongside some of my oldest friends, winning a (pretty meaningless) division, but losing a (pretty meaningless) playoff final - I was our leading scorer in my final game, and throughout my final season (when I was able to play)... it was the lowest level I've ever competed at, but was one of the happiest periods of my life on-court.
Ever since then, I've regretted not approaching my first rehab in the same way I approached my last - because I'd probably still be playing now.
Thankfully though, my mind can finally take the sidelines - and I hope that my sharing this with you will help someone else adjust to their time on the shelf, and come back better than they were before.