Players don’t get broken, forces do!

Serena de Nahlik thinks it’s time to talk about injury. Or perhaps, more specifically, how we should talk to people who are injured. 

When our bodies and/or our minds prevent us from playing, it’s a really tough time. There’s been a lot of research on the mental health benefits of playing sport, but there is also lots of evidence to suggest that physical injury (particularly long-term) can have a profoundly negative effect on someone’s mental health. We play a sport that is very, very harsh on our bodies, and it’s not uncommon for folks to be injured, and for injuries to recur over a player’s career. It’s really hard to keep working through hours of physio, whilst everyone else is playing tournaments and bossing their gym sessions and generally appearing to have a better time than you. It’s even harder to come to a tournament as a sideline player – arguably one of the most valuable people at a tournament – and watch your teammates play. Sometimes you see opportunities where you could have made a difference. Sometimes you’re calling the force but the play is too far away and they can’t hear you. Sometimes it’s even simpler: you just want to be out there playing again.

I’d guess that most ultimate players have been injured at some point in their career. It might not have been an ACL tear or a dislocated shoulder, but there have probably been times where you’ve not been able to play. And it sucked, right? And if it was for a long-term thing, it REALLY sucked. Or when you’re at your first tournament back after an injury and you can feel a niggle, and you start to worry that maybe you’re not better after all. All of these situations are really, really rubbish. 

Yet, when we bump into a friend at a tournament who’s on the sideline, not playing, what do we do? We say things like: 

  • “Are you (still) broken/injured (again)?” 
  • “Didn’t you injure that before?”
  • “I thought you’d recovered from that?”

I’m going to be honest here: I have never once found these things helpful. As someone who has had their fair share of injuries (ACL tear, 2014 due to a collision // back and shoulder chronic pain and mobility issues since 2017 due to laying out strangely // hip flexor tendonitis in Spring 2019), I have had these things said to me SO many times, but I just don’t think people realise the effect that these can have on someone’s thoughts.

Let’s just remind ourselves about why the friend has come to the tournament. Their team is here. They want to support. They love ultimate. They love the people, and the game. They are probably bored out of their mind now that they’re not playing all the time, and are feeling cooped up at home. They want to stay connected to their team, and want to miss out on as little of the season as possible. So they’ve very bravely decided to come along, even though they can’t play. They realise that someone on the sideline can be one of THE MOST important members of a team, and can help with tactics, water, sidelining, support, snacks – so much. They’re coming with a purpose, and a role, yet it still doesn’t feel the same as actually playing.

So when the well-meaning friend comes along and says “Buddy! Are you broken again?”, on a good day it can be taken in the way it was meant – a friendly comment with interest in your health. But on a bad day, or when it’s the fifth time someone’s asked about the physical state of your body in the past hour, it can really grind you down. It can feel like a horrible reminder that you can’t play the sport you love at the moment, that your body isn’t working very well, but also it can feel as though you only have value and/or purpose at a tournament if you’re playing. It can start to perpetuate a cycle of really negative thoughts: “why is my body like this? People must think I’m weak. I wish I could play. All these other people are playing and I can’t. All I can do is sideline and bring water to my teammates but that’s nothing compared to running around. Maybe I shouldn’t have come. Maybe I’ll never get better, as I’m ‘always’ injured. I wish someone would just ask me how I’m doing or how my day is going”. 

So in an effort to try and suggest a positive change to how we interact with our injured friends or teammates, I’d like everyone who reads this to take home four key thoughts: 

  1. If you see someone on the sideline who may (or may not) be injured, ask them how they are and how their day is going. If they’re injured, they’ll probably tell you, if they want to talk about it. If they don’t mention anything about it, don’t press the matter.
  2. If people have been injured for a long time, it can start to feel as though they become defined by the physical ability of their body, rather than who they are. If they’ve chosen to come to a tournament to sideline or support or take photos or volunteer or even just to get out of the house, that is equally as valid a reason for being there as playing. We should therefore be careful to choose words that validate their choice and empower them, and recognise the value in their activity. “Great to see you on the sideline!”, “have you taken any good photos?”, “thank you so much for volunteering”, “thanks for calling the force, that was so helpful”, “we really appreciate the water!”, “thanks for all your support” are all excellent things to say. 
  3. DON’T comment on the apparent regularity/frequency of someone’s injury, as it can be really, really hard to stomach. Just don’t.
  4. Let’s stop using the term “broken”. Broken to me implies something that doesn’t do its job because it is damaged. “Broken” ultimate players may not be able to play on the pitch, but there are many other jobs that they can do brilliantly, and we should remind them of those awesome things! Just because a part of their body may be injured, they are not entirely “broken” and should not be painted with a “damaged goods” label.