Over the course of a decades-long career in orthopedic sports medicine, I've had numerous opportunities to see some of our world's most heralded athletes at their absolute best – and sometimes, at their post-injury worst. As a sideline physician at many championship games, watching a pro athlete's feats of athleticism captivate millions of people is awe-inspiring. But as a surgeon who also cares for people who have sustained serious orthopedic injuries, I also get a unique view of what true athletic grit looks like when no one's watching. I'm here to tell you that witnessing an athlete's come-back after injury is awesome to behold. And I think there are lessons in it for everyone – whether or not you have a professional sports career.
If you're into American football, the regular season has just begun. It was plagued by a preseason fraught with injuries, including numerous ACL tears. With lots of commentary and speculation as to the future prospects for these players, I'm often fascinated by the amount of time we spend on the analysis of the injury itself and how little is spent on disecting the amazing comeback once the injury is treated and healed and the player returns to the field. I'm here to tell you that an individual's recovery and rehabilitation is where the magic happens. It is the time when I get to see just how "set apart" some athletes are from the rest of us. We tend to think they're special because of their superior physical gifts. But that doesn't tell the entire story.
Any orthopedic surgeon who treats people who play a sport for a living will tell you that even after a flawless "fix" of an orthopedic injury – whether it be a broken bone, torn tendon or something else – the risk remains that a player may not return to their pre-injury level of play. This has less to do with the physical aspects of human healing and nearly everything to do with the psychological. And I bet you can draw parallels to this in your own life experiences.
That "Little Engine That Could, I-think-I-Can" attitude is everything. It's the mindset that "failure is not an option" and turns epic physical and circumstantial catastrophes into miraculous triumphs. If there is one tie that binds together elite athletes, no matter their sport, it's their ability to adeptly bounce back from adversity. To most of them, failure isn't even a word they allow into their vocabulary, let alone their thinking. And it's interesting: When you watch interviews with players who've come back from injuries that were predicted to be "career-ending," what they say is almost always pretty simple – "I worked hard and I wanted it bad." "Faith and sweat." "I didn't come this far to stop now."