2017, injury, learning, recovery, soccer, teamwork

The One Thing That Nobody Tells You About Recovering From A Sports Injury

“Okay, when the whistle blows, I want you to fly down the sidelines. You’re way faster than their midfielder. We’ll send it to you from the middle, then send it back across the goal.”

I was standing on the sidelines during one of our final high school soccer games for the season, and my coach was walking me through plays before putting me back in. As I listened, I felt a sense of pride. Not a pride that comes with self-importance, but a pride that comes with being a part of something bigger. It wasn’t all up to me, but I was an important piece in the 11-person tapestry that represented our school on the field.

Having started playing at age 5, I always considered soccer one of my favorite activities—despite the fact that it was probably the one that I was worst at (and I had a lot of extracurricular activities). Regardless of my mediocre skill, I couldn’t let it go from my life—even after graduating the world of mandatory physical activity.

Me as goalie for the Orange Tigers (circa 1997)

After college, I continued to find ways to keep soccer in my life, often begging coworkers to play pickup with me after work, and eventually joining a Sunday morning rec league that became a defining part of my identity (or well, my Saturday-night-I-can’t-drink-I-have-soccer-tomorrow identity). I felt a sense of responsibility to my team. Despite whatever stressors or lows were in my personal or professional life, the Sunday soccer field was always there to give me perspective beyond the bounds of my life. 

The new daily routine

When I tore my ACL during an unforgettable game last spring, I was concerned about how drastically my day-to-day would change, and how difficult the journey ahead was going to be. Not being able to play soccer for at least eighteen months was an obvious consideration, but at that point it was only because a significant part of my routine would be stripped.

For the first ten months after Surgery 1 of 2, my journey was long but unlonely. Family kept me alive immediately after; friends showered me with love soon after, and physical therapists motivated me to build strength for many months that followed. But after that, once I was visibly fine and mostly strong, there were no more check-ins with family, friends, or physical therapists on the matter. All that was left was the cold monotony of a leg press machine at the gym.

The longtail of gym selfies

Running has always been my solo sanity. My nerves and mind run wild while my body does. So at Month-3 after Surgery 1 of 2, I was elated to start running again. And with my sidelines full of cheerleaders, I felt well-supported.

Two months ago, seven months after Surgery 2 of 2, I started to feel light again—life was back to “normal.”

Sharing solo runs

As I went through my day-to-day, slowly embracing the pieces of my routine that had been cast away during recovery, I was happier. But still, something felt off. And it wasn’t just the occasional knee pain. It was a deeper, empty pain.

The most common advice I received on ACL surgery was to keep up with physical therapy. And I had done that. But none of the advice had mentioned this darker pain.

On a Sunday morning at the end of October, I went for a run. I passed by a group playing pickup basketball and some people clad in similarly-colored athletic gear. That was the moment it hit me—I was a part that was missing its whole. I needed a team again.

After in-depth internet research, I found and joined a running group. Our first run was the following Tuesday along the Embarcadero. We were told the route, and everyone started at the same time. One veteran of the group took me under her wing and ran with me for the entire time. Somewhere down the line, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying the company during my historically solitary activity.

Shared runs

When we got back to the starting line, we stretched and waited for the rest of the group. When everyone had made it back, we went inside to drink water and eat strawberries. It took me back to the post-soccer-game celebrations with orange wedges and Capri Suns. I mingled for a bit before going home.

One month later I saw a familiar face standing behind me in line to board a plane from Toronto to San Francisco. “Did I meet you in a running club?” I asked with uncertain certainty. It was him, and we bonded over the small-worldness.

We talked as we boarded the plane. As I wrapped my knee before takeoff, I felt something I hadn’t since before my injury. Finally, I felt like I was part of a pack again.

I always knew there was no “I” in “team” but through my injury and recovery, I’ve learned that unexpectedly, there is also no I without a team.

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2016, community, humanity, pain, public transportation, San Francisco, soccer, sports injury

It’s Hard Out There With A Limp

Whether we can see it or not, everyone has pain.

Commuting in a city like San Francisco is not easy. Either you’re late or the bus is, or both. On the bus, you’re packed like a sardine next to someone whose music you can hear through their headphones through your headphones.

After a recent knee surgery, I dreaded the idea of commuting. Sporting a full-leg brace, I was barely able to move. How would I get a person’s attention to ask for a seat? How would I navigate through the masses? How would I stand up and exit before the doors close?

When I finally tried it, I was surprised to find that people pull out all the stops — at all the stops — when they see someone in need. They go out of their way to lend a hand, ear, or shoulder. My visible pain was met with sympathetic glances and in many cases, real conversation. Therapy, almost.

People asked me what happened, how I was coping, and how I was recovering. And then they shared. They shared their own personal stories of pain, coping, and recovery.

Pain, whether physical or emotional, unites us all.

 

Middle-Aged Woman, Nourish Cafe, Sept 2, 2016

Middle-Aged Woman, Nourish Cafe, Sept 2, 2016

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Safeway Employee, Market Street, Sept 6, 2016

Safeway Employee, Market Street, Sept 6, 2016

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Backpacker, Duboce Triangle, Sept 11, 2016

Backpacker, Duboce Triangle, Sept 11, 2016

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Lady with a short bob, Metro MUNI, Sept 14, 2016

Lady with a short bob, Metro MUNI, Sept 14, 2016

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War Veteran, Metro MUNI, September 15, 2016

War Veteran, Metro MUNI, September 15, 2016

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Young lady rushing down Metro steps, Montgomery Station, Sept 15, 2016

Young lady rushing down Metro steps, Montgomery Station, Sept 15, 2016

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Schoolboy with mom, Mission, Sept 20, 2016

Schoolboy with mom, Mission, Sept 20, 2016

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STEM-Happy Man, Metro MUNI, Sept 21, 2016

STEM-Happy Man, Metro MUNI, Sept 21, 2016

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UPS Delivery Man, My doorstep, Sept 22, 2016

UPS Delivery Man, My doorstep, Sept 22, 2016

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Woman with beanie, Metro MUNI, Sept 23, 2016

Woman with beanie, Metro MUNI, Sept 23, 2016

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Man who needs ‘ANY HELP,’ Montgomery BART, Sept 26, 2016

Man who needs ‘ANY HELP,’ Montgomery BART, Sept 26, 2016

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The next time you go outside, know that no matter what’s going on in your heart, mind, or body, you are not alone. If you see someone in need, challenge yourself to connect with her. You may be surprised at what you receive in return. We might call them strangers, but they aren’t that strange at all. We are all in fact, one and the same.

 

 

Originally published on Medium.

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goals, healing, recovery, risk, soccer

What A Sports Injury Taught Me About Risk-Taking

I spotted him the second I turned around. He was a couple of yards in front of me. I had just sprinted fifty yards but the cheetah inside me wasn’t giving up now. His back was toward me. The ball was by his side and I assumed he would turn soon. I was the only obstacle between him and the goal. The turf glistened in the sun and a light breeze cooled the sweat running down my face. I kept a close watch on him, trying not to blink. Out of nowhere, he fumbled. Like a predator sensing weakness in its prey, I charged. It was a risky move, but there was a chance I could steal the ball and fly up the wings. I knew I was faster than him.

It happened quickly. I went in for the attack and he instinctively kicked his leg out under mine. Our legs intertwined. My knee hyperextended laterally.

Next I knew, I was face down on the turf, pounding the ground and yelling out in pain.

Time passed. Finally, I was carried off the field.

Icing my knee while watching the remainder of the game, I reflected on my performance. I didn’t regret it. With two assists, strategic plays, goal-to-goal sprints, it had been one of my better games. The injury was an unlucky side-effect. Every risk has a downside.

Anterior view of knee joint comparing normal vs. damaged cartilage; ortho_arthro-knee-diag_anat; AMuscsk_20140311_v1_001 SOURCE: ortho_arthro-knee-diag_anat.ai

The day after the game when I was hobbling around at work, a fellow soccer player asked me what happened. “I hope you didn’t tear your ACL. That’s my worst nightmare. That’s not the way I want to go,” she said. Later that day, I was stopped again. “Do you know if you tore your ACL? I just started playing soccer and man, I’m just not up for that risk.”

Having always been surrounded by teammates and opponents in full-length leg braces, I too, have forever feared this outcome. The injury requires surgery to fix and inhibits you from running for at least six months. Not to mention the fear of re-injury that will forever chase a person like me.

It turned out that I tore my ACL and my medial meniscus.

I started playing soccer when I was five. From the little league Red Foxes to the high school Varsity Team to the city rec league Cyborg Reptiles, I can’t imagine life off the field. I am not an excellent player, but my speed, strategy, and hunger to win supplement skill level.

Head In the GameSoccer isn’t like running or going to the gym where your own inertia is the only barrier. A pick-up game requires you to wrangle at least three people, locate flat terrain, obtain a ball, and identify goal posts—at minimum. Over the years, colleagues and friends have been subjected to my (polite, yet) incessant begging to come out and play. As an amateur, I’ve often been asked (and wondered myself) what keeps me playing. Until last week, I never had an answer.

Twelve days ago, I got surgery to reconstruct my ACL and repair my meniscus. Two days ago, I started taking literal baby steps toward my recovery. With half of my mind focused on bending my knee with each step, the other half was lost in a realization: I had survived my biggest soccer nightmare. I had faced the worst-case scenario of the risk I had taken. And well, I was dealing. Despite the excruciating pain, I’m optimistic about the personal challenge ahead. I don’t regret that animalistic instinct that landed me here.The Recovery Begins

I am proud of myself for having taken that risk on the field.

Off of the field, I wouldn’t call myself a risk-taker. I belabor pros and cons; I slosh around in twin puddles of “you can’t go wrong.” I’m not the prototypical thrill-seeker who literally or figuratively just jumps. And this truth doesn’t upset me.

As I took took those deliberate first steps this weekend, I realized why I play soccer. I play to exercise my  risk-taking muscle. I gear up to get out there and do whatever I can to win. My animalistic hunger is caged between the goal posts.

And when I take risks on the soccer field, I learn things —about how to think and approach various situations, about leadership and friendship, about communicating with teams—that are directly applicable to every other aspect of my life.

Keeping Goal

I frequently hear and read the advice that taking “big risks” is the only way to meet your goals. Until now, I feared that my aversion to taking “common” life risks (i.e., quitting my stable job to “do my own thing” like travel or start a company or volunteer) would inhibit me from finding my success. But my recent soccer injury has made it painfully clear that this fear is unwarranted. Risk is relative. There is no objectively big or small risk. And no right or wrong place to take risks. What’s important is to find the parts of your life in which you are willing and wanting to take self-defined risks, and to take them. Then apply what you learn to the rest of your life.

Pre-surgery, I wondered whether I’d want to play soccer again. But I now know that I must. I must because the field is my self-identified risk playground. This is the place where my life goals come into focus.

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camping, hobbies, learning, mastery, reading, real world, running, self-improvement, slowing down, soccer

How To Keep Running When You Can Barely Walk

I have a lot of hobbies. Some that I dabble in (camping, letter-writing, crafting, cooking) and others that I pursue with rigor (running, writing, soccer, mentoring). I consider any of these activities equally productive uses of my time. I’m more advanced in some than others, but I’m not “world-class” in any.

A Dinner Menu

I often question whether my smorgasboard approach is a good one. If I want to be a notable writer, shouldn’t I spend every free moment drafting, submitting, or agent-finding? If I want to be a runner, shouldn’t I enter and train for marathons? Why am I voluntarily straying off the path of mastery? Shouldn’t I pick one thing and run with it (figuratively, except in the case of running)?

Recently, two things happened that provided me with clarity around my approach that seemingly lacks strategy.

Thing #1: I got injured

Please Describe What Happened

I’m currently recovering from bursitis in my right knee after a collision on the soccer field. The (hopefully) 3-week process involves lots of rest (no soccer, no running), ice and aspirin, and rehab exercises. After serious “It could have been worse,” recognition and gratitude, I was overcome with a mild depression — the injury affects my favorite part of my daily routine. I go for a run almost every morning. Some runs are longer than others, and some are faster than others, but they all count.

The first morning after my injury, I woke up when I usually do and simply skipped Morning Routine Step 1 (the run) and went straight to Morning Routine Step 2 (get ready and go to work). Arriving at the office at 7 AM, I realized that, despite having enough work to do, this wasn’t a healthy resolution.

That evening before going to bed, I denied myself the self-pity. Instead of wallowing in the fact that I wouldn’t be getting up the next morning to run, I reminded myself what running means to me: Above and beyond the obvious cardiovascular benefit, it is a mental stabilizer. It allows me to tune in to my physical and mental health — Am I in pain? Am I anxious? Am I content? Am I strong? — before starting the day.

I then took inventory of my other hobbies to identify one that could temporarily replace running. When it came to writing, I recognized that, though it is not currently part of my everyday routine and obviously lacks the physical jolt, it helps me achieve a similar mental balance whenever I do sit down and do it. Writing became my chosen substitute.

For the rest of that week (and for future weeks through my recovery), I spent each morning running words across a page before heading to work.

Thanks to the existence of my buffet of hobbies, I was able to find an alternative when two were taken away. If I had previously written any off, the injury would have left me in a darker hole.

Thing #2: I read a memoir

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing

I started reading Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running shortly before I got injured. After the injury, I considered putting his book aside until I was fully recovered. It’s painful to read a runner’s love notes to his sport when you are unable to participate. It’s tempting to hate him for writing passages like, “I’ve never had a time when my legs hurt so much I couldn’t run. I don’t really stretch much before running, but I’ve never been injured, never been hurt, and haven’t been sick once. I’m no great runner, but I’m definitely a strong runner” (Murakami 40).

But I persisted. I persisted because in many ways, it’s not a book about running. It’s a book about lessons learned from running that have helped Murakami shape his writing and his life. He explains, “Most of what I know about writing I’ve learned through running every day. These are practical, physical lessons. How much can I push myself? How much rest is appropriate — and how much is too much? [. . .] I know that if I hadn’t become a long-distance runner when I became a novelist, my work would have been vastly different” (Murakami 82).

Skills honed as a runner, such as focus and determination, are ones that Murakami applies when writing as well.

As I read, it was clear to me that I too have hobbies that intersect. Writing and running, of course, in all the ways described by Murakami. But others as well, like soccer and mentoring.

Whenever I sub out of a soccer game, I have the ability to experience the game from an entirely new perspective. I immediately see opportunities that were previously invisible to me (i.e., routine plays by opponents or open space for passing). When I reenter the field, I’m a better teammate and player, making deliberate choices based on what I’m seeing as well as what I wouldn’t have seen before. A few years ago, when I was struggling with the realities of mentoring high school students in a bad school district, I came to the conclusion that, even as a mentor, I needed to think and act like a soccer player on the sidelines. While I can’t change the game first-hand, I can observe from afar, helping students and teachers identify opportunities for improvement that they might not see while in the thick of things.

From Murakami, I learned that having multiple hobbies means I can improve on one while practicing another.

***

Camp, Glamp. Potato, Potahto.

Camp, glamp. Potato, potahto.

From both the realistic perspective (a hobby being taken away from me) and the creative one (hobbies informing one another), there seems to be no reason to eliminate any from my life. It’s nice to dabble, and mastery needn’t always be the goal. Perhaps my perspective would be different if I were truly brilliant at one activity or had specific aspirations as such. But then again, maybe not, if you consider running-enthusiast Murakami to be a great writer.

From marathon writing sessions to realistic mentoring goals, I’m choosing the circuitous path to extra-curricular enlightenment. To be great at anything, after all, you have to go the extra mile.


Ref: Murakami, Haruki and Gabriel, Philip. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir. New York, NY: Vintage, 2009. Print.

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childhood, elementary school, honesty, lying, New York Times, soccer, World Cup, World Cup 2014

“The deception of others is almost always rooted in the deception of ourselves.” -Bill W.

I spent a lot of my elementary school days wishing I could draw. Maybe it’s because every project, no matter the subject, involved some pictorial component (we drew out word problems, illustrated book reports, and graphically depicted science experiments) or maybe it’s simply because I was a creatively charged kid. Unfortunately, no matter how much I tried, something about my drawings was always off.

In the fourth grade, I made one of the best discoveries of my childhood: By placing a blank sheet of paper on top of one with illustrations (i.e., pages from books, flyers, greeting cards) then putting them both against the window in my room, I could perfectly trace an original onto my blank piece of paper.

It was a guiltless victory, signing my name to the bottom of the traced drawing and parading it around to my friends and family. They pretended to be impressed while probably wondering why I only ever drew scenes from the Bernstein Bears.

Nobody ever caught on. But also, nobody really cared. And today, I can draw no better than I could back then, in the fourth grade.

Every Friday that same year, our teacher sent home a folder that contained our graded assignments for the week. Students were to deliver the folder to their parents, get the folder signed with the date, then return the folder to our teacher on Monday.

I still remember arriving at school the Monday of The Incident. I was standing in line to enter our classroom and was struck with the desperate realization that I had forgotten to get my folder signed. I ran to the bathroom where I took out my folder and a pencil and carefully copied my mom’s signature from the last week’s row into the row of the current week. Stomach in knots, I stuffed my folder into my backpack and ran back into line. I knew I was in the wrong, but I couldn’t afford for this mare of my perfect 5-gold-star record! Later that morning, I turned in my folder.

For the rest of the week, I couldn’t look my mom in the eye. I knew she knew. She had to know. She has eyes in the back of her head, she always said. The next Friday, when my teacher handed me my folder, I realized that my mom would see my forged signature above this week’s blank row.

My fool-proof plan was foiled.

When I got home, I vigorously erased my rendition of her signature. The plan was to tell her the truth, that we had forgotten last week and that she had to sign twice. However, given my strong grip, I may well have engraved the forged signature. The moment I handed my mom my folder, the jig was up.

“Did you forge my signature?”

“No…”

“This is illegal. You can get arrested for this!” I went to sleep annoyed at myself for getting caught and repeatedly praying that my mom wouldn’t call the cops.

That day, I formed a child’s criteria for dishonesty: Don’t get caught. 

But there was is a nuance in these two situations that I failed to recognized until now: Though in both cases I was being dishonest, in the former, I was only being dishonest to myself — and only harming myself. 

***
 
Recently, I’ve returned to the drawing board to formulate my adult definition of dishonesty.

It hasn’t been easy.

Two years ago, I read Dan Ariely’s The Honest Truth About Dishonesty. Study after study showed how a lot of people cheat a little bit, regardless of consequences. We slide down a slippery slope of exaggerating a little and then exaggerating a little more. Sure, it’s not because we are all inherently immoral individuals, but more often than not, our environments encourage us to act in slightly dishonest ways. Though there are ways to diminish the temptation to cheat, I finished the book feeling unsettled by the frailty of human honesty.

Then yesterday, I read a recent New York Times article in which Sam Borden explains how America falls short of all other countries in a crucial World Cup skill: dishonesty.

The way this plays out, players should dramatize transgressions by the other team to force a more favorable decision from the referee. For example, “flopping” onto the ground in response to a light push from an opponent has a higher chance of being called by the referee.

Despite the fact that players of other teams rely on and profit from this tactic (“The best attackers in the world, including Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez, regularly fall to the ground, particularly if they feel that they are going to lose possession”), American players refuse to be pulled down by them. The idea of dishonesty, “runs contrary to the ethos of idealized American sports. […] American athletes are typically honest on the field, no doubt influenced by years of being told to be strong, battle through contact and finish the play.”

So long as their intentions are pure, what is refreshing to see is that American players are unwilling to lie to themselves despite the fact that others are doing it, despite the fact that an opportunity cost is victory. They want to authentically reach their goals, and will stand up — not fall over — for what they believe in. Tactics like flopping to win would make them soccer players of another country, not of America.

Honesty with oneself is such a pure form of honesty. Maybe the purest. 

Today, I formed an adult’s criteria for dishonesty: Don’t lie to yourself. 

Dishonesty isn’t as transparent as tracing paper. We bend truths, tell white lies, protect with half-truths, and recount sides of stories. In our “mature” lives, little in life can be defined as a truth or a lie. Often, lies can and maybe even should masquerade as truths.

But the minute you start lying to yourself — about your thoughts, words, behaviors, and intentions — you lose yourself. You truly flop to the ground, lose the trust of others and lose trust in yourself. And once you lose these things, none of them will be as easy to forge as your mom’s signature.

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