“Put your body on the line” is a saying that rings true for any athlete. When athletes commit, they give it their all and
take on all the risks. Some of those risks are injuries. The stories of athletes who heal from career-altering injuries may be incredibly powerful. But the truth is, returning to the pre-injury physical level is only half the battle. The body is only as capable as the mind allows it to be. “Trauma”, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, is a disordered psychic or behavioural state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury. 

Clint Malarchuk was a professional ice hockey goaltender from 1981 to 1996. In 1989, Clint Malarchuk’s throat was lacerated by an opponent’s skate which saw him rushed to the hospital where he was stitched up and fortunately survived. In a roaring display of resilience from him, he returned to play only ten days later. To many, that meant the incident was behind him. Yet, in 2008 when another player experienced the same injury, he was overcome by the memory of his incident. The mind keeps a record of all that it endures, good or bad. In traumatic situations, memories are often suppressed as a coping mechanism, however, that does not mean the memories are lost. The article How The Brain Hides Memories by Northwestern Medicine speaks of how memories created in certain mental states such as trauma can only be accessed when one re-enters that state.

It is this psychological phenomenon that inhibits physically recuperated athletes from returning to their sports after injury. These devastating injuries can sow seeds of doubt in an athlete’s mind about their ability to come back and also in their ability to be as high-performing as they were pre-injury. Athletes see their bodies as machines. They are required to be the most efficient to see the most success, but an injury sets them back on many fronts. Even after they have recovered, the damage done to their body presents a weak spot in their makeup. All these battles are more mental than they are physical. No amount of physical therapy or strength training can convince the athlete that they are still capable of their prior level. Athletes can make use of therapy to overcome these mental blocks, but the process is painful. They will be forced back into the mental states that caused the trauma. They may even have to accept the idea of performing at a reduced level. Only when all the mental obstacles are cleared will the athlete find a way forward. Whether that means they resume playing or are simply at peace with the space they find themselves in.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “One need not be a Chamber to be haunted; One need not be a house”. Trauma and fear can be like ghosts in the lives of athletes during their recovery and thereafter. These lurking feelings are invisible but make greater impressions on an athlete’s ability than the physical scars they may have. Only in a holistic recovery- both mind and body – will they be truly healed.

DigitalManager and Micaela Wathen

Originally published on the PDBY website: The Ghost of Injuries Past