Sports

A long road back: Student-athletes’ injury recovery takes a mental toll

College athletes seek support and understanding as they deal with the challenges of recovering from injury.

A photo of senior guard Alyson Miura in a cardinal jersey and shorts with gold USC lettering and the number 25. Her left foot is up in the air, and she's holding the bottom of her shoes.

As she watched her shot sink through the hoop, Maddie Campbell felt tears in her eyes.

It wasn’t because the basket was the first of her college career, although that was certainly significant.

The basket was the culmination of more than a year of recovery from a back injury that nearly left her paralyzed. After the humbling process of learning how to flex her core again, the lonely days spent in her room wishing someone would reach out and the many games she watched from the sidelines, Campbell had finally made it back on the court for the USC women’s basketball team.

“That was one of the most emotional on-court experiences I’ve ever had, definitely one of the most emotional experiences in general,” Campbell said. “You work so hard to come back, and it’s just so rewarding once you hit that first shot. You’re able to get your feel back again and get your identity back.”

Like Campbell, many college athletes face a long road back from injury that is just as challenging mentally as it is physically. And although mental health counseling services are typically made accessible to student-athletes, some wish there was more individualized attention provided to athletes recovering from injury.

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Alyson Miura, one of Campbell’s teammates, has struggled with injuries throughout her time at USC. When COVID-19 restrictions eased in October 2020 to allow her team to practice together again, Miura was looking forward to playing after a long break. She had been receiving shots in her left knee throughout the summer but planned to play through the pain because the injury didn’t seem serious.

In her first practice upon returning to campus, Miura heard a “pop” and knew something was wrong. She had torn her meniscus and faced a recovery process that would keep her out for much of the upcoming season.

Rehabilitation was daunting, as Miura often had to train longer than her teammates who were healthy. Due to COVID protocols, the only people Miura saw in person were her teammates and coaches, and while they constantly checked in on her and offered encouragement, the isolated environment made going through recovery more challenging.

Miura attended practices and games but found it difficult to be fully present when she was injured.

“I was still constantly encouraging my team, but at some point it really does become hard — and not in a selfish way — but it does become hard to cheer,” Miura said. “Because you’re so mentally not there, and it’s just exhausting when you’ve been through so much and you can’t be on the court yet.”

Although Campbell sustained her back injury before the pandemic, she faced a similar struggle in finding people to talk to about her recovery. Campbell’s injury occurred in the first week of official practice during her freshman year. At that point, she hadn’t formed many friendships outside of basketball, and it was difficult to initiate relationships while recovering from a serious injury.

Croix Bethune, a standout on the USC soccer team, also suffered a season-ending injury while training on campus for her freshman season in 2019. Eleven months after tearing her ACL in a game with the U17 National Team, Bethune was participating in USC’s spring camp when she reinjured her knee.

As the nation’s No. 1 recruit that year, Bethune had been expected to impress in her freshman season before she was sidelined by injury.

“To not fulfill what had been put on my name,” she said, “it just kind of sucked.”

Bethune had never dealt with a serious injury before tearing her ACL. Although she grew to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” adjusting to being injured was difficult.

“It was just smooth sailing, so to finally have a bump in the road, it kind of threw me off,” she said. “I was sad, I was down. I just wanted to be back on the field again.”

Bethune, Campbell and Miura said student-athletes are encouraged to lean on USC’s sport psychologists for support. Bethune said her team’s sport psychologist can be reached over text to set up meetings at any time. However, Campbell said she wished the university took more initiative to reach out to injured student-athletes.

“There were a lot of times where I just kind of sat in my room,” Campbell said. “It’s not really up to [the university] to handle what we do in our personal lives, but personally as an injured college athlete, I think there should definitely be more attention and individual check-ins with injured players. Even though it might not be wanted at all at the time, it should definitely be pushed more.”

Jacky Allen, a rower at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., has dealt with lingering weakness and respiratory symptoms after suffering from COVID-19 and pneumonia back to back last August. Rather than rowing on the water with her teammates during the fall, Allen was part of “land squad” and was assigned workouts on the rowing machine that sometimes added up to a marathon’s worth of rowing in a day. Although the “land squad” workouts were lower in intensity, Allen found that she was often rowing more meterage than her teammates who were healthy.

During her recovery process, Allen and another teammate dealing with long-haul COVID symptoms were pulled in for a meeting with their coach where, according to Allen, he expressed that the two rowers “weren’t doing enough.” Although he later apologized, Allen said it was difficult to hear because she was already putting in the effort to complete her long workouts.

“To watch me fall from the top rower to barely being able to be in some of the bottom-level boats that compete was very frustrating to him,” Allen said. “And I think what he didn’t understand was that it’s very frustrating to me as well.”

JJ Fahnlander, a baseball player for Whitworth University, also in Spokane, tore his meniscus during offseason workouts before the 2020 season. Shortly after he suffered the injury, Fahnlander went home for winter break and remained in almost daily contact with his trainers at Whitworth. He appreciated the check-ins and the support from his family, including his father, who had gone through an ACL injury in the past and provided advice about recovery.

Unlike Campbell and Miura, who attended practices and most games while rehabbing, Fahnlander missed out on team traditions as he stayed home to recover. He was unable to attend the team’s annual freshman initiation ritual, many of their January practices and their first road trip.

“Not being around the team, that’s tough,” Fahnlander said. “Sometimes you get a little down on yourself. You’re like, ‘Man, I wish that just never would have happened and then I’d be with the team more.’”

During their recovery, Campbell and Miura recognized the importance of thinking about their identity beyond college athletics. Miura said it was challenging for her not to “overidentify” with her sport, but looking at her other relationships and passions helped her feel like she wasn’t “losing [herself] completely” when she was injured.

“I realized that while basketball has made up my entire life and I’m here as a college athlete, that’s not the only part of me,” Miura said. “I’m still a daughter, I’m still a friend, I still have my own hobbies that I like to do. I’m so much more than just an athlete. I’m a student. I have things that I’m passionate about, and that all really matters. But when you’re a college athlete, it can feel like your whole identity is that sport because it just takes up all your time.”

Although it was frustrating for Campbell to be the only freshman on her team who could not play or travel, she believes she is a better leader because of the bonds she created off the court.

As athletes prepare to return to action, it is challenging to regain confidence and combat the fear of another injury. Fahnlander worried his knee would act up when he started making cuts again in training. Since Bethune already experienced a second injury, the fear of getting hurt again lingers in the back of her mind.

Miura stressed the importance of taking enough time to fully recover before playing.

“You gotta get right before you come back,” Miura said. “Being out here in college, I definitely have pushed myself a little bit too hard, and then you fall back, and it’s those setbacks that kill you. If you avoid the setback and stay on course and don’t overdo things, then you’ll actually be back faster.”

Although Allen was no longer fast enough to race in Gonzaga’s top boat due to her lingering struggles with illness, she elected not to take a redshirt year, instead competing in the spring season before graduating in May. Since she doesn’t plan to row competitively after college, Allen wanted to experience her final races with her teammates before taking the summer to rest and consult doctors about her illness.

The uncertainty as to whether she will make a full recovery has been difficult for Allen. As her rowing career came to a close, she struggled with looking back on her records and All-Conference honors and realizing she wouldn’t have a chance to race at that level again.

“I think the hardest part is looking at the big picture and being like ‘Wow, I was really good,’ the word being ‘was,’” Allen said. “Looking back at your past self and being like ‘Dang, I was pretty good at this and look at me now.’”

Allen said that it’s easy for injured athletes to feel pressure from themselves and others to get back up on their feet, but she hopes that more people will recognize that athletes’ talents don’t make them invincible to the adversity that any other person faces.

“Sometimes there’s things that you just can’t come back from, and when you’re expected to be able to just persevere, I think that’s really tough,” Allen said. “With people that are really, extremely good at what they do, what they do is kind of inhuman, so when something super mortal brings them down, I think people are really hard on themselves.

“That’s something that should be changed. It’s OK to be good at what you do and also still be a human.”

Campbell’s back injury flared up again in January, and she had a two-level disc replacement surgery in June. She hopes to be back before her team’s season begins in November.

The Campbell who steps on the basketball court this fall will not be the same person that showed up for fall practice in 2019. The mental battle of coming back from injury has given her a new perspective on basketball, leadership and relationships.

“I’ve grown a lot physically but even more so mentally,” Campbell said. “I’m not the person I was coming in. I wouldn’t trade these injuries for anything because I’ve grown, matured, just everything through these. I’m thankful for the process.”