Injuries happen. It’s become so frequent that audiences have become numb to the announcement of an injury to a player, as the motto “next man up” is reciprocated by coaches in every sport. Some injuries are dealt with as the year goes on, but some injuries are season ending, and career altering.
Insert Mike Demps. In 1999 Demps was a sophomore on the Nebraska football team, fighting for a starting spot. As the team prepared for its first game of the season, Demps was lined up at gunner on special teams, when he collided with another player. He got knocked down and tore his MCL and meniscus.
“Man, I was really just crushed because I wasn’t going to get a chance to play that season,” Demps said.
Per an academic study in Clinical Advisor, athletes face many psychological hurdles before returning to their respective sports. Athletes deal with challenges of fear of re-injury, fear of not getting back to their former selves and other neurological issues that may occur.
In a study done by the World Journal of Orthopedics, 42% of athletes with ACL reconstruction surgery or other knee injuries, have battled major depressive disorder. Being away from their respective sport could strip away their identity, allowing athletes to fall into a depressive state.
Demps said he didn’t allow that to happen to himself. He admitted denial at first and pondered whether football was even for him. There were thoughts of “is this it for football?” or what was the next path for himself.
“Me personally, I started to think about a lot more than coming back to the football field,” Demps said. “I started thinking about my whole life.”
At one point he said he found himself alienated from the team, but quickly got himself back into the swing of things to keep himself mentally in check. Being able to connect with teammates, staying present in their lives along with his, helped his mental health never waver.
Not every story is the same, as Mike was in college athletics and had multiple outlets to help him.
Another athlete, Sophie Frappier from Fargo, North Dakota, tore her ACL the summer before her freshman year of high school, while playing basketball. She went in for a block attempt and landed on her right foot. Frappier then felt a pop in the back of her knee. She didn’t feel a sudden rush of pain but knew something felt off. Frappier recalled the doctor’s visit, specifically when the doctor rubbed under her right knee.
“I don’t even remember the feeling, but I remember feeling sick to my stomach because it was so gross,” Frappier said.
At first, she felt frustrated she couldn’t play soccer that upcoming weekend, but she performed rehab for a month, where then she had surgery to repair her torn ACL. Her biggest mental hurdle was facing the fact that she had to get weaker in order to get stronger again.
“I was losing so much muscle mass,” Frappier said. “And I specifically remember being able to feel my thigh bone, which was sad and scary all at the same time.”
Frappier said she knew the recovery process would be long, but she knew she had a core of family and friends who would help her not feel lonely. Over the first couple of weeks in recovery, friends visited her every week, as Frappier couldn’t get off the couch except to use the bathroom. Those visits by family and friends helped her propel herself into a full recovery.
For Demps, it helped that social media didn’t yet exist, certainly not in the form of today. He said he knew his focus was on one thing, which was recovering from injury, not diving away into his phone to escape.
“You see everybody’s highlight reels of their lives, and it’s hard to compare yours, especially when talking amongst other athletes,” Demps said.
Social media was well the norm during Frappier’s recovery. But focus and determination helped in her own experience. And she advises other athletes also lean on those close to them and less on distractions like social media.
“I see myself as a people person,” Frappier said. “So I definitely relied on people in my life to support me.”