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Fall 2012, Hunter Hewitt

Athletes and others experience mental growth while recovering from serious injuries

Injuries are a common part of life.

From world-class athletes to working-class citizens, everyone is vulnerable to physical damage on their body, and nearly everyone experiences some form of an injury in their lifetime.

Similar injuries can occur to different people, but rehabilitation processes often vary depending upon the goals of the patient. In other words, a college football player with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) will undergo a different recovery regimen than a non-athlete who suffers the same injury.

Although the rehabilitation will likely deviate among different people, the lessons learned throughout the process tend to be similar.

Athletes face a grueling, fast-paced rehabilitation

In a physical sport like football, injuries occur regularly. Because of the high injury rate, teams are filled with an immense amount of depth, allowing backup players to fill in when another is forced out due to an injury.

Miner tapes an ankle

Physical therapist and athletic trainer Allison Miner tapes an ankle (Photo Credit: Ernie Anderson/SDSU Media Relations)

Dominique Sandifer, a senior wide receiver at San Diego State University, found himself out of action after he tore his ACL in practice in the spring of 2011. He was forced to undergo surgery, and faced a recovery process estimated to take 6 to 9 months.

“It was really tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel when I first started,” said Sandifer, who is healthy again and playing in his senior season at SDSU. “I wanted to be back so much sooner, but there were a lot of limitations and I had to be patient. I matured a lot during it all, though, and it made me a better person in the end.”

Allison Miner, the physical therapist who guided Sandifer through his rehabilitation process, saw the challenges that he faced.

“It can be become boring and monotonous when they are in here everyday, and they want to do more but they can’t,” Miner said. “It’s a constant challenge to keep rehab interesting, and it’s tough for them mentally because they can’t do the things they could do before.”

One common difference between athletes and non-athletes recovering from injuries is the frequency of workouts. According to Minor, athletes typically do some form of rehabilitation 5 to 7 days a week, while non-athletes may only see a physical therapist once or twice a week.

College football player Paul Pitts talks about his rehabilitation process after injuring his knee

Non-athletes seek a pain-free life

On a typical day at the San Diego Sports Medicine Physical Therapy Center, several different types of people are seen.

Serious athletes, casual runners, and individuals who have never played a sport in their life can be found working with physical therapists, hoping to recover from all kinds of injuries.

San Diego Sports Medicine

Both athletes and non-athletes can be found at San Diego Sports Medicine (Photo Credit: Hunter Hewitt)

According to physical therapist Liz Stelter, different approaches are taken when dealing with athletes and non-athletes.

“Initially, we give our patients an evaluation to see what their long-term goals are,” Stelter said. “Some want to play professional basketball, and some want go for a casual jog on Sundays. We are usually more aggressive with athletes, while we take it slower with regular people.”

For the non-athlete, the pace is much more relaxed when recovering from a serious injury. They are able to take their time throughout the process and focus on small details to avoid lifelong complications.

Athletes, however, want to be back as soon as possible. This might mean chronic pain or other issues further down the road, but as long as they are back in playing form in a timely manner, those are of little importance at the time.

Steve Tanaka talks about his rehabilitation process after having surgery on his shoulder

Athletes and non-athletes both grow in the recovery process

Some athletes are forced to accept that playing competitively won’t happen again. Colin Shumate, a former San Diego State football player who had his career cut short due to a knee injury, saw the rehabilitation process change once it was determined that he would no longer play

“It was still challenging, but the process slowed down a lot,” he said. “They had me take my time, because we were now focused on getting my knee back to function good as a normal person rather than as a football player.”

Shumate underwent multiple knee surgeries during his career – the most recent of which was a microfracture surgery to repair cartilage damage. No matter the extent of the surgery, he saw similarities in the recovery processes.

“The challenges were still the same,” he said. “It’s discouraging, and you realize it’s going to be a long process. You want to do so much right away, but your body won’t let you.”

Returning from a serious injury is a demanding process, and the body may never be the same, but an incredible amount of mental toughness and perseverance can be gained during the recovery. Although it is often painful and tiring, it can help someone, whether athlete or non-athlete, grow tremendously as a person.

“It becomes a mental test everyday,” Shumate said. “But once you get back to normal you prove to yourself how mentally tough you can be. After going through it all, I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.”


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About Hunter Hewitt

Hunter Hewitt is an online media professional based in Dallas, Texas.

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