The Quiet Ones: How fear hushes our injury

Taking care of ourselves needs to be priority number one in Roller Derby. We believe we cannot be a good teammate if we are falling apart at the seams: physically, emotionally, or mentally. We must achieve perfection. We must not falter.

But injury happens, and there is hesitation to talk about it openly. There is a reluctance to admit it.

More openness has been happening in the social media world about what we struggle with in our daily lives; we are becoming brave enough to own our illnesses in a public forum, and discuss our injuries with our friends miles away. You’ll find more blogs, IGs, and threads happening now around how to deal with depression in the face of practice, or anxiety because of expectations placed on them, or how badly someone’s knee swelled up after a particularly hard hit. I have seen postings about imposter syndrome, dysmorphia, misophonia (me), and bipolarism most commonly.

There are several groups online dedicated to those who have gone through injury, and how they are recovering and processing the ordeal. In these groups, we can be honest about how we reinjured ourselves, or are going to the ortho for a DIFFERENT limb, or can empathize about when a recovery is not going as we had hoped in our minds. They allow us to vent our frustration and document our journey of reintegration into our sport.

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But when we walk through the door of practice, the conversation and understanding stops. Sometimes, when we are feeling things online and want to talk about them we pause.

We don’t want that THR to see that we had a panic attack. We don’t want our captain to hear that our ankle swelled up after practice. It’s not perfect, it’s not pretty. It’s not the model athletic stone statue that we have been told to be.

When we come to practice, there is a feeling that we are under a microscope. We cannot look sad. We cannot be in pain. We cannot have an off day. We cannot let the wet wool blanket weigh us down. We cannot injure anything else. We fear showing weakness …

“Unless you are the right person.”

I hate that I have had discussions with people across the world, in every level of play, who have said that members of their league are held to different standards. If they look mean, it’s ok. If they pull a muscle in their back in the gym, it’s no problem. If they de-gear early because of personal issues, no sweat. Meanwhile, other skaters fear they will be removed from charters, blacklisted from teams, or generally forgotten among the crowd if they show ‘signs of weakness’ within our world.

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Finding out something is wrong is no one’s favorite day.

[And I’m going to venture to say this stems from the “Perfect Life” that we are expected to upkeep on our SnapChats, Facebooks, and Instagrams.]

You’re not allowed to be disappointed in yourself. You’re not allowed to show that disappointment. You’re certainly not allowed to leave the track so that others aren’t affected by your disappointment. All this, unless you are one of the few granted human status because they are that good or popular.

I have seen people in leadership roles belittle others who decide not to push through injury. For years, I have thought twice about sharing my journeys and experiences because “Why would someone put you on a team if you have bad knees?” or “Maybe you wouldn’t get benched if you weren’t always talking about your injuries on Facebook” or “Well, we can’t give you feedback. You look like you’re always about to cry.”

So what happens? People hide the injuries. They don’t admit the have a high ankle sprain because there is a game coming up. They avoid bracing “to get better at a different position” but really it’s because their shoulder is searing with pain. They play off how hard they hit their head when they fell at home, because they don’t want to be concussion tested.

And how do you think this all plays out later when the weakness is tested. I know I tore my ACL because I refused to admit I was playing on a high ankle sprain. Friends have torn rotator cuffs, cracked the bones in their feet, or get Second-Impact Syndrome from falling.

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Injury has been part of my whole derby life, and even when smiling I often have Resting Sad Face™. Photo by Christopher W Weeks

 

I am tired, folks. I am writing this and I’m just mentally exhausted with trying to understand all of the rights and wrongs going on in our world right now beyond derby. There is so much hate and anger in humans, and tackling this issue seems so daunting. Usually in my blogs, I would go forth with “here are some ways we can deal with it”, but honestly …. I do not know how. This is a culture thing inside of roller derby.

How do you we make it ok for us to be human? Especially in a world where some people cannot even exist without fighting for their space. We say we’re inclusive and we say we’re forward thinking but our community is a product of the society we live in. There is so much to overcome, and to add to the classism, sexism, racism, transphobia, etc that we contend with, now there is the fear of honesty.

I bonded with a teammate when we admitted to each other last year that we downplay our pain. We don’t want “to be that player that is always hurt, or made of glass.”

As a coach, I keep telling my team members that if they’re sick, injured, or mentally unwell it is OK. It does not make them a disappointment. They are not letting anyone down, and that derby will still be here when they are healthy. As a player I fight against it daily.

Captains and coaches have to understand that we are not deities formed from clay. Our teammates have to have empathy and understand that we all suffer through different issues. Prehab programs to keep skaters physically healthy could help, and rehab options in house are great for skaters coming back or with small injuries. Sometimes, just letting folks who feel alone know that they are not can be a catalyst for mental recovery.

I just had a huge panic attack simply through the effort of trying to make a point. I deleted everything that I said. Tried to erase it, and felt like erasing myself. All I can think was, “I should stop officiating. If I cannot even make it understood that I was not on the offensive, and that I am saying the same thing as everyone else… why should I be allowed to officiate? If no one is listening to me here, why should they anywhere?” And for those of you with anxiety disorders, you can imagine the downward spiral from there.

[No, I am not lost on the irony of a writer having a panic attack as a result of stating an observation of the life surrounding.]

Stigmas are everywhere and they pervade our culture. We need to stop judging each other and start listening. We need to start understanding. We need to stop being afraid of admitting pain. We need to stop being afraid to admit trepidation. We should be allowed to be disappointed. We should be allowed to be injured, to be broken, and to need a moment to recover without guilt.

We are a family. We need to start treating each other more as such, and less as simply stepping stones to get to the next goal on the list. So hey, Roller Derby? Let’s love each other a little more and break away from expectations of perfection, shall we?

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The reality of returning to roller derby after injury

They always tell you that coming back from injury is hard. They always tell you to ‘ease in’, ‘listen to your body’, and that ‘it takes time’.

No matter how many times you hear those words, it never truly sinks in until you’re three weeks back into a full derby schedule competing for a travel team position with a D1 league.

August 31, 2015 was my last practice of the season pre-injury. 7 months later I had surgery.

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8 days post ACL reconstruction with hamstring graft. “Gotta be weak before you can be strong”

4 months later I was back on my skates. In another 2 months, I could hit people! But the thing we all dread happened: I incurred a different injury a month after contact clearance.

Luckily, it was a medium sprain and not a major tear. Once I returned home from Europe (it happened on day 3 of a 5 week trip) I was able to secure the blessing from my ortho (as long as I wore my SECOND KNEE & DonJoy when skating), and made my way back into training.

I was lucky. We all say that we’re going to come back quickly, but I actually did. I worked hard, set goals, and was lucky enough not to go through any major set backs.

On January 4, 2017 (with a desire to throw up all over the place), I went back to Tampa Roller Derby for the first practice of the New Year.

The thing about returning from injury [that the non-injured don’t realize] is that you relive your injury over and over again in those first practices. All you think about is “What happens if I feel ______?” and “Oh gosh, that person is coming at me fast”. At some point, you contemplate the injury, and the possibility of re-injuring (especially if you have already experienced a re-injury).

No matter how many people you ask about “How do I conquer the mental hurdle of attacking practice after injury?” you will never find a true answer. You may get those answers in the first paragraph. Maybe someone will talk about how they visualized success (this was something I did), or how they tried to distract themselves through the first practice. There is no trick that I have found to click your mind into being confident returning back to practice.

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I spent my time during injury reffing to keep my skating skills, reflexes, mind, and eyes sharp. Plus, being a Zebra is kind of fun. Photo by Phantom Photographics

Step one to coming back: Don’t beat yourself up for being scared or tentative. That said, if you are SKATING scared, you need to knock it off. Skating scared is how you hurt yourself or someone else. So if you’re on the floor and you can tell that you’re stiff or tentative, remove yourself. Go to the side of the rink, and get your legs under you a bit. There is no shame in nervousness; there is no shame in taking a step back.

The caveat is this: Eventually you have to trust yourself and try. Just like how we all have to be able to define the difference between “injury” and “effort” when it comes to pain; we have to be able to discern trepidation from actual physical inability. Yes, it’s scary. The mind is a powerful place.

I was so scared on my first night of real hitting. I kept thinking about what it felt like for my left leg to be “plucked” when I would hit someone to the outside. My ortho told me to stop being scared and play my sport. I pulled aside a skater who I trusted and asked them if I could hit them a bit at a standstill. It gave me confidence that it wasn’t going to pop at first contact. From there, I moved into the drills. I primarily made hits to the inside, gaining back my confidence.

A team mate told me that I can’t play derby if I’m afraid of hitting. So the next time I was up, breathing steadily, I took my old inside position, and just played roller derby. Did I hit as hard as I used to? No. But with each repetition I gained confidence. With each scenario, I focused more on derby, less on my leg. Trust your PT, trust your training.

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Don’t trust your quad strength? Add in this exercise! Increase the height continuously. I love using treadmills, they’re tall, they have tread on the sides, and you can increase the incline for more challenge

The thing they don’t tell you is how much it’s going to hurt to come back.

Not your injury (well maybe your injury depending on circumstances), but everything else. You see, I spent 6 years getting beat up by my friends 3-5x a week. I started with lower impacts at the beginning, and worked my way into D1 leagues. The hits are heavy and precise [mostly]. Coming back from injury, I hopped right back into the level I left, there was not a gradual ramp up. I went from 0 impact to 100% impact.

Yes, you get bruises. We’ve all seen the grape-shaped prints of our friends blushing into a nice purple shade on our arms and shoulders. We all get pad burns from our team mate’s Velcro. We get bumped in the nose by a stray helmet. These are typical and expected.

What I didn’t expect was how sore my chest and shoulders were from being braced. I have spent my off time doing push-ups, pull-ups, bench press, and every other shoulder/back/chest exercise possible. It didn’t matter. Also, the debilitating stiffness brought on from absorbing impact as a blocker seeped its way into my back, core, hips, and legs. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve run, deadlifted, squatted, sprinted, or jumped. There is no way to train on your own for being run into incessantly by world class blockers and jammers.

I actually just recommended to a team mate who is 12 weeks post op, that she should get a foam bat and she and her girlfriend could take turns hitting each other with to prepare them to come back to derby! Could be a fun destresser, and no foam bat is going to hit anywhere as hard as Tazmaniac coming in full steam.

What else I didn’t expect is the continued feeling of dehydration, mental exhaustion, and hunger. I’ve been on Team Always Hungry for a long time now, but my body is craving more food than ever. Even when I drink a gallon of water a day, it doesn’t seem to be enough. My body can’t seem to get enough protein and good fats! I crave them always.

I knew my body was going to experience some bumps, but after 2 weeks of 3-4 practices of 2-3 hours each, I feel like I have been run over by a truck. I may have been. Her name may have been Dakota Dynamite actually….

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Tampa always relies heavily on bracing and positional blocking. It’s up to one or two blockers to absorb the impact of full steam jammers. Photo by Phantom Photographics

They also don’t mention that you ARE going to injure something else. At least, you’re very likely to. Will it be as serious as your first injury? Probably not. Even ‘easing’ into full game play, there is an element of ‘jumping ahead that happens’. I was not going to spend 6 years getting back to D1 level play, but those 6 years had prepped my body, joints, and muscles for it.

If you had a knee or ankle injury, prepare for a hip flexor, hamstring, or groin muscle to be in pain. If you had a shoulder injury, chances are your other shoulder is going to ache more than usual. It’s the nature of imbalance. Subconsciously, we favor. Even when we’re diligent, it’s common to pull something else. Your whole body tightens unless you are forever diligent. If your calf and feet are tight, your hip flexor may pull. If your hips are tight, your hamstring may suffer.

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A scene all too familiar to many of us. At least I had SKIN WARS to keep me company.

The social side of returning to derby can be odd.

Some people will come back to cheering crowds of friends, and open arms. They will have felt missed, and like their team was with them through the whole recovery process. Most of us, somewhere along the way, lose touch with people and leagues a little bit. Sometimes we do on purpose.

I know many people that have said to me, “Wow! I can’t believe how involved you’ve been while injured” (I jam coached Molly Rogers RG, reffed, and announced) “I couldn’t do it when I was injured, I was too sad.”  Pulling away was their defense mechanism. For me, being involved was my way to keep sane.

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I went to Sting of the Hill to ref, but when I had free time, I got to work with the golden voice of Sweet Willy T. Staying involved kept me happy.

Most of us actually come back to leagues that are happy to have us, and excited we’re back but they’re not throwing parties for us. You should not anticipate a great homecoming or outpouring of affection. Know that people want you there, but they are not going to fall all over you upon your return. For me, it felt like I was transferring in again. I had been gone for almost a year and a half, living on the other side of the state. Many people were still there, but many were new. I have had to re-earn trust, demonstrate commitment, and show that I am healthy and able-bodied.

Just because you had to earn respect among your peers once, don’t think you don’t have to do it again. Just because you were on the A team before, don’t expect them to just save you a space; always expect to work for it.

Be hungry to work for it.

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From the moment I found out I was going to have surgery, I focused on the end goal of returning to play. Stay hungry.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from coming back it’s that you’ve gotta have a plan of recovery for after each practice day. Incorporate yoga before you come back. If you’re tight when you show up, it’s just going to get worse for you. Keep doing your PT every day. Incorporate new PT as your back, hips, and legs tighten and react to the new world of pain. Drink all the water now, so that you’re already hydrated when you get to practice down the road. If you haven’t flipped or rotated your mattress in a while – DO IT. It can make a world of difference. If your pillow is too small or flat, go to Marshall’s and nab a new one. It’s worth the $15.

Get a tennis ball, lacrosse ball, and make a foam roller out of PVC pipe. Use them liberally.

Use this time to get new gear. What hasn’t been replaced in a year? Get a new one. Just do it. Also, pick up some compression gear and impact gear; obviously I’m a big fan of Steaks Roller Derby Accessories. If you have been contemplating shin guards, go check out the soccer goodness of ArmourFlex Sport.

Cross train. Pick up a sport other than derby. Be smart about your choices, but doing something more than just skating will help your body be strong in many ways. Weights. Plyo. Sprints. Other sport. (I am fond of rock climbing personally)

Eat after practice (your body needs the supplies to rebuild your muscles), and eat in the morning (your body needs to be fed after the 7-9 hours of rest). Meal supplements, post-workout shakes, electrolyte support, multivitamins, other vitamins … you may think it’s hogwash, but I can promise you it helps. Your body needs calories, protein, fats, fiber, and carbs to keep up your energy and performance. Drop me a line at DerbyAmerica@gmail.com if you want to talk nutrition and supplement support.

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Most importantly:

EMBRACE THE FUN OF THE GAME.

I really feel that those of us who have come back from long injuries have a really great appreciation for the sport that we get to play, and we should cherish each moment that we get to execute on roller skates. I know that once my nerves about my leg subsided, I settled into really loving and executing. Yes, I still get frustrated with myself, but I am also way quicker to laugh and smile when my team mate levels me or pushes me out of bounds.

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The game and the people in it are way too much fun to be a seriouz face all the time! Laugh and love your sport!

 

I love this game. You have to love it to suffer an injury and spend the next year and a half obsessing to jump back in. Good luck, Fellow Gimps! If you have anything you’ve learned along the way, or tips on how you came back to sport from injury, please share in the comments!!

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Thank you, Phantom Photographics, for the pictures used in this blog. (Go buy photos or a shirt from him)

Phantom Photograhics