In my first piece as Sports Editor for Exeter’s University newspaper, I explore the unstable mental world of sporting injury – find original piece here.
Vincent Kompany is an atom of unadulterated energy. He emits a roar – a primal roar of frustration turned to delight. After months of watching in the stands and seasons blighted by recurring injury problems, Kompany sees light at the end of a very long, and very dark, tunnel. The Manchester City skipper had put the Citizens 1-0 up against Southampton.
“I put in the hard work and don’t really complain too much about what’s happening to me and just carry on”, spoke Kompany in the aftermath.
Kompany is a self-confessed optimist and it is this stoic resolve to view his problems through a lens of half-full, rather than half-empty, which has been crucial to his return.
Some are not as lucky, however.
An athlete’s identity is inexorably bound within their profession, and so, when a cutting pain rips through a muscle, the fear and uncertainty are hard to describe. A professional cyclist, a rower, a sprinter – the list is endless – invariably source their sense of self-esteem and sense of worth from their success. When an injury prohibits an individual from mining such psychological stabilisers, the consequences can be disastrous.
“AN ABSENCE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL STABILISERS CAN BE DISASTEROUS”
For all their muscular definition, exterior solidity and peak physical fitness, athletes are also vulnerable to the toxicity of the mind.
One of the contemporary greats of the footballing game, Andres Iniesta, speaks of an “unease” and describes a paralysing feeling of “being a victim of something that terrified” him, in his autobiography. The Spanish maestro has won everything there is to win in the game: internationally, and domestically, his competitive triumphs are rivalled by few.
The diminutive midfielder scored the winning goal for Spain in the 2010 World Cup final, demonstrating his ineffable psychological strength. Even Iniesta, who can bear the weight of a nation on a kick of his right-boot, is susceptible to the minefield of injury.
Iniesta writes that the insecurity and doubt that festered during his lay-off opened up a dangerous world of mental instability. He could now understand why someone could end up committing an act of “locura”. Roughly translating into madness, it appears to reflect a crude attitude to the ramifications of mental health, but is, in fact, indicative of the torrent of torment that consumes the mind of an injured athlete.
It would, of course, be offensive to say that an athlete’s whole character is defined by their sporting endeavours; but when the drive, the tunnel vision mindset of winning that normally occupies an athlete is replaced by a vacuum of nothing, it can lead to illogical and harmful thinking.
When James Ellington was the victim of a horrifying car crash he was placed in intensive care and endured “agony for a week”, being operated on and eventually emerging from hospital “full of screws, metal and carbon fibre”.
2017 was to be Ellington’s break-through year; a year in which he strived to join the elite of world 100m sprinting and break the 10-second barrier mark. His ambition for a glorious year was crushed in a split-second.
Now into his recovery, a long and arduous road, Ellington is another example of the harrowing effect injury can have on a sportsman. The British sprinter describes “feeling guilty” for “putting [his] family and close friends” through the tremendous anxiety the accident caused. “If I died, I would have been OK,” he said, “because I’d have been dead”.
It is no way to think, and Ellington will know this, his family and friends will have reminded him of this, but such guilt is not only a symptom of a major incident, but also an infectious weed of injury.
Ellington and Iniesta’s cases differ in their extremity – the former a horrifying crash, the later a muscular injury – but they both expose that damage to the body can translate into a damage of the mind.
The effects of an injury will also manifest themselves even when an athlete has recovered. In 2015 when Rafael Nadal was entering the world stage after a lengthy lay-off, he bemoaned an inability to “control” his “emotions”. Nadal believed he “was too nervous and played with a little anxiety”.
The ugly monsters of depression, guilt, unease and uncertainty that shadow one during injury will evolve into a hampering evil of self-doubt and anxiety upon actual recovery.
“THE UGLY MONSTERS WILL EVOLVE”
Football maverick and prankster Jimmy Bullard crystallises the debilitating consequences of injury to the mind when describing how he “felt like a glass ornament” towards the final stages of his career. Injured athletes often vow to “come back stronger”, but for some, these are hollow words and spray a veneer of confidence over the demoralising prospect of a long-term lay-off. Indeed, Bullard attests to the often erroneous nature of the sentiment in articulating his sense of delicacy.
Sportsmen and women seldom receive the sympathy they deserve when they suffer an injury. The psychological warfare that ensues is rarely documented. In an era when mental health issues are finally being thrust into the public consciousness, it is also time that the world recognises the mental wounds and resulting scars left by sporting injuries.