Boston Celtics star Gordon Hayward reminded us this week that while the pain of a sports injury is certainly uncomfortable, the emotional rehabilitation process that follows might be even worse.
“Definitely the depression,” Hayward said Wednesday on the Dan Patrick Show. “It’s been painful, but it’s nothing like sitting around watching the team you were supposed to be playing with this year. I signed to play for the Boston Celtics this year now to only sit and watch the Boston Celtics this year. That part has been difficult and much more difficult to deal with than the pain.”
The loss of support — and identity
When athletes like Hayward experience a significant sports injury, many physical and psychological things occur. First, the physical rehabilitation process has to be defined, understood, and committed to in order for the athlete to play again. Typically there is some degree of pain involved in an injury, resulting in pain management decisions to be made. Athletes also have to commit to a physical therapy schedule, as well as the possibility of having to see other helping professionals to assist with the injury. The good news about all of this, ironically, is that the physical aspects of injury recovery are usually short-lived, and most athletes do get into a groove when it comes to getting treatment and improving their condition.
The mental aspects of injury recovery are often an entirely different experience for athletes, however. Unlike the physical pain that quickly lessens, athletes typically experience the exact opposite mentally — as the injury goes on, increasing emotional difficulties are common to witness. When athletes leave the team due to injury, they lose their support system (their teammates), and if the injury is one that jeopardizes their sports career new questions of “Who am I?” relating to their personal identity often arise (athletes give up the identity of “athlete” when they retire). What this means is that it is very common to see athletes, like Hayward, experience depression (and anxiety).
The “normal” pattern of injury recovery
When it comes to athletes an injuries, the irony is that there is no normal pattern of injury recovery. Just as there are unknowns when it comes to the way our bodies respond to various physical aches and pains, it’s equally difficult to predict how we will respond to injuries that inevitably take us away from doing what we do. In the case of athletes, however, these uncertainties run much deeper (and therefore even less predictable) as their sport careers play out on a relatively short and finite path (most athletes retire by high school). It is for these reasons that it’s not surprising to hear Gordon Hayward talk more about the depression he is experiencing (and related complexities) rather than the pain associated with his horrific ankle injury.
Gordon Hayward experienced a terrible sports injury, but he appears to be determined to fight back and play again. Assuming the Celtics have psychological support in place, he should move through the depression he is experiencing as he reaches new rehabilitation goals and nears his eventual return to the court. It is helpful, however, that he is speaking out about his emotional challenges so that athletes in the future who experience injuries will know that their depressed feelings are valid, and quite normal.