I 'sit around' these days about 10 times more than I did when I was wrestling. Back then, I had nothing but energy. Now, all I want to do is take a nap. By any standard, besides morbid obesity, I sit around a lot! I'm not particularly lazy or unmotivated or anything like that, i'm just hurt.....physically, I HURT! How did that happen? It's so clear to me now, but when these injuries were setting in....during the H.S and college years...when I felt nearly invincible, the power of denial and the visions of being the toughest, got me over many obstacles but, in retrospect also got me interpreting some real warning signs of injury as 'just another' mental obstacle.
A list, or a bunch of stories, is just going to get me reminiscing and rambling, and boring everyone but myself, but a "blog" about injuries, in my case, will be plenty lengthy without that. The long and short of it is, I have had 13 operations...6 Knee, 2 shoulder, 3 lower back, 1 neck, and 1 even on my nose. Add to that, one (still untreated) dislocated elbow from an MMA fight, and you've got me, camped out here in an oversized recliner telling you to be more careful. If you only knew how funny that is to me. It's a very very sharp contrast to how I used to be.
Wrestling itself, was not to blame, Alan F. was. I was injury prone and reckless from the time I was born. I inhaled tomato poison in the garage at about 2 years old, dropped a giant old time RCA stereo on my head when I was about 4, impaled myself on a cupboard handle climbing for oatmeal cookies a few years later and nearly cut my head off on a clothesline jumping my BMX bike. So, that was a little list...but the gist of it is that I was always risky and injury-prone at the same time and that is a mix of 'gas and fire'. There was something I subconsciously thought that was 'cool' and 'funny' about getting a little injured or doing a crazy stunt, but that's how some kid's minds work. The show Jackass comes to mind. I would never dare say I could have done THOSE crazy stunts, but if those were my friends growing up, honestly who knows? I was getting injured turning normally low risk activities like riding a bike or getting a cookie into high risk things.
Well, then there's the other side of getting injured, where I wasn't too successful either. When your doing something inherently risky, like contact sports, and you're trying to minimize injury to zero so you can perform at your best. I think about Bo Jackson from time to time. His hip injury didn't look that serious, unlike Joe Theisman's lower leg injury but, either way, each of their careers were either over or never the same. However, as far as timing in Bo J.'s carreer is concerned....about 3 years into his NFL & MLB career vs. about 14 years into Theisman's career, his injury came at a time that left us all wondering how great he would have been had he played a lengthy career. Both injuries were purely from the game. Nothing malicious or foolish about them. It's just that some people's number just comes up sometimes and the end result is a body part that can't perform quite the same anymore.
Injuries started pretty early for me and I felt like I was up against a wall. I could give in to the pain and miss practices and maybe never get the opportunities to reach the higher levels of our sport. Or, should I push through again and again and ignore pain for better or worse, until I either got to the top or just had no other choice but to quit. Of course, you can have both ultimate glory and minimal long-term pain, which many athletes do accomplish. That's what I want for you, so that's why I'm writing.
A sports career that is only a memory can happen all at once, or as a sum of smaller injuries. Theisman and Bo Jackson are good examples of sudden serious career altering or ending injuries. And a good example of the second way is athletes who have to give up their sport after something like too many concussions, which I'll note, must be incredibly frustrating to the athlete, because their body can be 100% and they have to give up the dreams and lifestyle and the excitement anyway. My physical state at present was the sum of smaller "nagging"-injuries with some "doozies" mixed in. I suppose that's a common "mix".
Just like I remember a State Championship or winning NCAA's, I remember equally as vividly my first "stinger" (neck injury) during the Sectional finals freshman year of high school, my A/C joint shoulder injury at the Sunkist Open, and most definitely dislocating my elbow MMA fighting in Japan...I think, simply forgetting to tap out or maybe thinking I was strong enough to keep my arm bent. Who knows???
Those are the most serious 'one-shot' type injury moments, but I also remember the daily nagging neck pain that the "stingers" brought on...the horrible lower back spasms that ultimately I'm sure played a role in my three lower back surgeries and constantly working on my range of motion of my knees, only to slowly lose more and more range. I'm certainly not trying to put a pity party for me together, so the question that matters is...How did I get there? and How can I help the next guy to NOT get there?
The answers to both questions are the same:::
The way I see it, the physical part of wrestling (and many sports) has 4 parts: Technique (skill), Strength, Conditioning....and Flexibility. The trick is to improve in all 4 areas over time. Considering the possibility that sometimes improvement in one area can hold back or reverse progress in another area. For instance, the highly improved Technician, may lack Conditioning, due to a lack of available time for more cardio-type training, and vice versa.
For myself, the most common give and take scenario is my training was my Flexibility being sacrificed for Strength. I was very excited to begin weight training when I was about 13 and I attacked the weight room with everything I had.....completely ignoring my stretching routine for about 3 consecutive years. By that time I had neck stingers and short-term 'crippling' lower and middle back spasms coming on more frequently. And, of course, my first (of 6) cartilage tear operation.
To make a very long story short, physical limitations imposed by the 'real' injuries closed in over time. Hindsight of course is 20/20, but looking back, I think I trained myself to reinterpret REAL injury pain as mental weakness for a 1000 reasons, but mostly for fear of sitting out of practice or competition and losing my momentum of rising up through the ranks.
Competing is over for me, but I think about it sometimes still. Would I have had less success and missed many more opportunities if I would have spent more time off the mat getting healthy? Would I have possibly had more success? Would I have ever developed the necessary mental toughness if I gave in to too many injuries? Should I have been even tougher..i.e., am I just being whiny? Who knows??? The end result is what it is, and if my physical state is any indication of how hard I pushed it, then I did just fine...cuz I'm in pain!!
I think it's just good to realize that improvement along those four areas has it's parts that compliment each other and that also contradict each other. I'll just call it a delicate balancing act that you keep in mind and work on as you go along in your training and as you instruct others on their training.
In reality, you will not participate in physical sports for any length of time without some lingering injuries, but where is the threshold between a fair sacrifice and a stone cold regret. You are pushing your joints and tendons and ligaments more than you otherwise would and just like anything you push to the limit, it just won't last as long. Indy Cars, with their expert craftsmanship, probably don't race at full speed for a quater of a million miles. or even run that long, like a good old reliable pickup or something. But, there is no victory lap for Grandpa's '72 whatever truck.
You've got yourself and the people close to you to help decide things like, Is an injury hampering you even though you are giving your best effort?, or would your best effort to overcome the pain be the greatest move you ever made.
For me, I'm a little sad that I haven't been able to run full speed without pulling a hamstring or calf muscle for the last ten years...or that I have days at a time where my back hurts terribly and makes me walk crooked for no reason at all, but I'm not that sad. I gave what I had to give to get what I got. Maybe I miscalculated at times and maybe I calculated with precision at times too, but it's over now. All I can do is share my experience with you and let you make the decisions.
It's a tricky equation, but it's your equation to master. Be brave but take care of yourself too.
Happy Holidays to everyone!
Alan Fried is a native of Ohio wrestling for St. Edwards and NCAA Champion for Oklahoma State University