Katie Watson came to The University of Texas with dreams to make it to Track and Field Nationals, but due to repetitive injuries, the student athlete was cut from the team in her senior year.
“I had made running who I was,” said Watson.” “It was what defined me and that’s what I wanted with my college career.”
After suffering from multiple stress fractures in her femur, Watson, like many other athletes had to face an uncharted road to personal recovery, a journey that doesn’t always guarantee the full comeback for athletes.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, while college athletes are generally healthy members of society, participation in competitive sports often brings the unavoidable risk of injury. But when one instance can literally take a player out of the game for, months, years or even permanently, what is the emotional damage an athlete must face while also dealing with their physical injuries?
Heidi Armstrong, owner of Injured Athletes Toolbox uses her own experiences to work with injured athletes and provide them with the tools for coping through feelings of anger, frustration and despair that often accompany the physical components of a sports related injury.
“I have unfortunately and fortunately had a lot of experience with physical injury,” said Armstrong. “I was a professional mountain bike racer about 15 years ago, had a bad mountain bike crash and I just fell into this really bad pit of despair. I lost my identity.”
After realizing she couldn’t do it herself, Armstrong sought help beyond physical therapy and met with a psychotherapist to work out her frustrations in productive ways. She later found that her experience could be of help to others in a similar situation and spent 12 years supporting athletes who simply needed to “talk with someone who’d been in that hole before.”
Armstrong suffered another injury in 2010 after a bad ski racing accident and decided to spend her 13 month recovery period researching the mental effects on injured athletes and how they described their suffering.
“I found that no matter a person’s age, sex, sport, or level of experience in the sport, the words that people described for their suffering were the same,” said Armstrong. “The most common word to come up was disconnection. Not only disconnection from their body, but also from the teammate’s social network and things like that.”
Watson’s recovery left her in a similar situation of disconnection.
“It’s a business so coaches have to focus on the better athletes who are getting them points,” said Watson.” “A lot of it was kind of put on me to decide what was wrong [with my injury] and I was kind of thrown on the back burner.”
Armstrong saw this common but often overlooked struggle for athletes and used her newfound knowledge to create Injured Athletes Toolbox.
“I thought back on all of the years I was helping people informally and providing a support they needed while injured, and those things became my services,” said Armstrong. “So through all of this I’ve helped people from all over the world and it’s been a really fulfilling experience.”
But while external injuries are often to blame, concussions brought on by sports are often a far more dangerous culprit to the student athlete. In a span of one year, 13.1 percent of women student athletes and 19.4 percent of male student athletes reported suffering from a concussion.
Former UT baseball player, Benjamin Kennedy suffered a concussion last fall during a scrimmage and described his recovery to be a very tricky process.
“At first there was nothing I could do for it,” said Kennedy. “Doctors told me the best thing I could do was lay around and after a month passed I was not feeling any better.”
Kennedy went on to see a concussion specialist who later diagnosed a problem in his vestibular system that deals with balance and vertigo.
“Everyone can see you break your arm or pull a muscle but a concussion is something that outsiders cannot identify just by looking at you,” said Kennedy. This kind of sent me into a depression because my brain was injured and I wasn’t sure how I would ever be normal again.”
Kennedy attributed his successful recovery to the support of friends and family who were there to help him out. Like Armstrong, he believes the emotional support of others helped him to overcome the injuries and their mental effects.
As for Watson, her injuries came as a blessing in disguise. “I’ll be running for A&M next year and it was because of the support of my previous coach and friends who encouraged me and told me I was going to be fine,” said Watson. “It has definitely been a growing experience every time I’ve been injured.”