The warrior mentality and my aching big toe
One of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately is what I’ve heard described by various people as “the warrior mentality,” which is the default mode that is drilled into the heads of most athletes from a very young age. Obviously the subject of concussions has been in the news a lot lately, especially in the NFL, but the ideal of the “tough” athlete who sustains an injury and shakes it off to go back on the field, pitch, or court is definitely not new. And quite frankly, it’s taken me to the age of 43 to figure out that this is for the most part extremely stupid.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about an athlete overcoming the basic soreness or pain that comes from performance of their sport or activity. I’m talking about the tired idea that celebrates somebody who has sustained an injury but keeps quiet and continues to run or play without complaining or raising their hand to come out of he game. It breeds the mentality in athletes, especially young athletes, that they should keep quiet and not say anything for fear of losing their spot. I used to be that guy, and I’m here to tell you that dear lord it’s just an insane thing to do.
I’m pretty lucky really, I never sustained anything more serious playing sports growing up than a broken arm, though I can count multiple occasions that I suffered what today we’d call a concussion, but back then was just “getting your bell rung.” You shook your head a few times and got back down court or in the huddle without thinking twice about the butterflies swimming in front of your eyes or the pain in your head. Beyond that, there’s the sprained ankle I came back too quickly from by taping up my foot tight and loosening the laces on my shoes to accommodate the swelling or the back pain that I ignored, giving in only to pop a few aspirin or jump in the sauna occasionally during lunch or after school before practice. And I didn’t do this at the urging of a coach or to try and be a hero or anything, it was just what I thought I was supposed to do. Keep quiet, don’t complain, man up and don’t let your teammates down.
Hey, guess what? Ignoring injuries is a really horrible thing to do to your body. And looking back I can pinpoint exactly when my body started to show some signs of wear and tear beyond the norm, and it was the summer between junior and senior years in high school. I was a pretty decent basketball player, and while I couldn’t jump out of the gym or anything, I had developed some pretty decent hops by my junior year and could do a better than average array of dunks for a goofy 6’4″ guy who was definitely more Larry Bird than Michael Jordan. In that summer though, I all of sudden lost just a bit of that elevation. I could still dunk a basketball, but lost the ability to elevate enough to dunk two-handed from a standing position, and I noticed that I couldn’t get back off the floor as quickly as I once could.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve periodically dealt with back pain and my family’s history of arthritis is starting to flare up in my ankle, knees and foot (you have never seen anything quite so simultaneously hilarious and sad as me rolling around on the floor in agony when my big toe locks into place and I’m trying to straighten it out. Good times.) I don’t think it is any coincidence that the areas that bother me the most were places where I can recall sustaining a seemingly minor injury and just ignoring it.
I don’t want to come across as whiny or complaining, but I think it’s important that people realize the repercussions of pushing their kids to “man up” and fight through an injury instead of pulling back and making sure that that pain in their leg or back isn’t something more serious than just soreness. Kids need to realize that they aren’t invincible and they only have one body for the rest of their lives. By all means compete, push your limits, but know when to pull back. Playing through an injury shouldn’t be the ideal or the norm or celebrated. And yes, if you had told me that at 18 I would have laughed at you.
You can’t leave the decision on whether or not to come out of the game or match to the athlete – they are always going to tell you that they are ok and want to continue. Take a look at this video:
The Tottenham keeper Hugo Lloris takes a pretty vicious, if accidental, blow to the head and was clearly knocked woozy from the blow. Everyone watching the match, including the commentators, assumed that Lloris would not return and that a substitute would soon take his place on the pitch. Only, funny thing happened. After stepping off the pitch for the minimum time required, Lloris returned and afterwards was praised by his manager for his bravery in continuing. Lloris declared himself fit to return and did so, and nobody on the Spurs sideline objected. Until managers and coaching staff, and, more importantly in youth sports, parents, step up and remove the player in a situation like this, it will continue to happen. (And for the record my parents never pushed me to play with an injury. I was good at hiding stuff, even from them.)
Hugo Lloris is a professional athlete who is handsomely compensated for his efforts, and he happens to have a very talented backup named Brad Guzan ready to step into his place, so it is only natural for him to be reluctant to take himself out of a match. And Lloris may in fact be fine, but, is it worth the risk given what we are learning everyday about the consequences of athletes coming back too soon from a concussion and injuries? 25 years ago I would probably have been the first person to praise Lloris. Today, however, I worry about the precedent it sets for young athletes that were watching that match. I’m a very minor example, but believe me, it isn’t worth it. Just ask my big toe.
I’d love to hear your opinions. Do you have kids in youth sports? If so, how concerned are you about the long term repercussions of injury?