This week oft-injured NBA star Andrew Bynum spoke candidly about his battles with injuries, and how he is struggling mentally to get the fire back to play at a top level again. Bynum missed all of last year because of two knee operations, and although he has played a few games for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season, he is noticeably slower and not nearly as athletic as he once was (and yet he is still only 26 years old, relatively young by NBA standards). Consequently, the mental drain of physical rehabilitation has taken its toll on Bynum, so much so that he offered the following quote this week:
“I’m struggling mentally….I feel like I can still be a double-double guy in this league, but it’s just going to take some modifications to my game and whether or not I want to accept the challenge and do that.”
Without joy in playing basketball, can Bynum rebound to being the player he once was? And on a larger scope, can athletes (in general) play to their full potential when they no longer have the passion to play? In other words, can raw athletic talent make up for not having a burning desire to compete?
The psychology related to injury recovery can be a far more excruciating experience for athletes than the physical pain associated with the injury. Dealing with isolation, uncertainty, anxiety, and sometimes depression can be catastrophic for some athletes, and finding the will to go on and regain the abilities the athlete had before the injury can cause an incredible amount of stress. Andrew Bynum spoke to these factors, even if you had to read between the lines to get at his frustrations stemming from his injuries.
If Bynum has lost his fire to play, can it be rediscovered? And even if he never has the same passion again, can he still be a “double-double” guy in the league (and still be recognized as one of the league’s best big men)? Similarly, if you are a parent or coach, do you think a young athlete can play at a high level even if he or she isn’t fully dedicated to the sport? Can athletes still stay mentally tough even when they lose their focus on giving their all to their sport?
Andrew Bynum is not the only athlete to question his desire to play sports after a career-threatening injury, but he is perhaps the most famous one lately to speak out so openly about his insecurities and how he might be “one foot out the door” already with his thoughts of retirement.
From my own clinical experiences with athletes, I find that it is the exception – not the rule – when an athlete regains his or her passion and commitment once they have checked out, and I also find that it’s only a very small percentage of athletes who can still play at a high level (relying on their superior skills) even while not having much of a desire to still play. Using another example, it’s almost trying to manufacture an emotional, loving connection to someone you’re not very interested in — in most cases this is very difficult to do. Andrew Bynum may be one of the rare athletes out there who has the physical gifts and abilities to play well even if his heart isn’t completely into it, but what that will yield remains to be seen.