Back at the end of 2019, I was bench pressing at the Physique Warehouse Gym, Surrey, when the feeling that most lifters dread hit me like a bullet, and I knew instantly it was bad.
It was a routine session, I was in the final week of a 12-week peaking program, and what should have been comfortable sets of 2 reps on 185kg quickly became the opposite. I had been nursing a bit of tightness in the left pec for some weeks now, and no amount of mobility and stretching was realizing it, and this should have been a massive red light in my head but after 30 years of lifting I am still a meathead at heart and decided to push on and deal with it at the end of my program (mistake number 1).
So on the fifth and final set which should have been an AMRAP at 185kg, I lowered the weight under control and I could feel the left pec was even tighter than before and instead of keeping my line I adjusted my elbow to try and alleviate the pressure (mistake number 2), the bar come to my chest and I pressed it no problem but here is where I should of left it (mistake number 3), the tightness was very evident now and it was only getting worse, I lowered the bar for a second rep and as it left the chest my elbow flared out due to the tight pec and as I pressed there was a very audible tearing noise and all the power drained out of my arm, but my spotter was unable to take the weight so I was holding it in a pause position about 6 inches over my chest. At this point I realised I was in trouble and had to get that bar off my and somehow, I managed to throw it off to the side, and fell to my knees clutching at my chest.
For so many years I have seen countless pec tears and have always prided myself in avoiding them right until the rip age of 45, so get it now was a real kick in the bollocks but if you want to take the positive then it’s a miracle I lasted this long considering the years of training.
Off to the hospital to see the extent of the damage, and after examination it was diagnosed as a partial muscle tear within the tissue itself, which has its pluses and minuses, firstly it means that cant operate because you cant stitch actual muscle tissue you can only reattach ligaments and tendons and luckily I hadn’t detached anything off the bone or from the muscle itself, but I had caused a lot of damage to the belly itself which resulted in a lot of internal bleeding, so cut long story short, I can still use the pec but it will be a very long road back to full strength both mentally and physically which is what this article is about, How do we deal with the mental side of injury and more importantly how do we get over the menta hurdles it creates when getting back under the bar.
Why do we care so much? It is only a Sport?
I get asked this a lot, especially from friends and family outside the sport, “maybe you should quit” or “Is it worth the pain”, but if we quit every time we got hurt in any sport there wouldn’t be many people left doing it, so why? Why do we care so much about training? Now I can only speak for myself and my clients over the years but I’m going to try and outline exactly that, and why its so important in our lives.
- A sense of who I am.
You’ve heard the expression “I am who I am”, well this holds true of any professional athlete or even serious amateur, they put their heart and soul into the sport they have chosen, they’ve sacrificed time, money, sweat and tears to get where they are, and it becomes who they are. So, lifting for me has become who I am, and I know it’s the same for most of my clients, if you take that away you especially take away who they are. Agree or disagree it’s a personal choice and if it makes that person happy then who are we to tell them otherwise.
- A sense of self-worth.
The biggest driving force for any athlete is the will to get better, to constantly improve, to get positive feedback, to achieve what they believe. These are all things that will lead to a positive feeling within, a feeling of self-worth, everybody loves a pat on the back, to be rewarded for doing well and to have that feeling of admiration from our family and friends when we achieve our goals. These are all powerful motivators and ultimately make us feel special.
- Stress relief
There are two sides to this one, those who suffer from a stressful lifestyle and sport, or exercise is there saving grace, their release from the rat race they live and work in and they recognize that fact so getting injured buts an immediate holt on their release and only compounds the stress further. Then there is the other side, those who think they have no stress in their lives and only really discover stress when they are forced to sit out due to injury and start to understand how many training was protecting them from stress.
WHAT’S NEXT? HOW TO DEAL WITH THE AFTERMATH
You are going to be overwhelmed with feelings of internal and external loss.
Is the injury going to keep you out of training for a short while or is it career-ending? You will ask yourself who am I? A lot of athletes have been competing and training since an incredibly young age and believe their identity is what they do, “I’m a bodybuilder” or “I’m a fighter”, and if they believe that this is a career-defining injury then “who am I?”.
In my case, I knew it was serious enough to stop me from competing for the foreseeable future, but it was not the end of the road by any means, so I guess what I am trying to say is focus on what you can do instead of what you can’t do.
There is going to be a vacuum in your life in some way as a result of an injury, you are no longer going to be able to train the way you did, or your no longer able to work towards that competition you had your eye on but how we deal with this is especially important in how we come back from it.
There will be 2 main things you will have to deal with, first is that feeling of independence and invincibility that the majority of athletes enjoy, and pride themselves on is suddenly lost, they are now relying on coaches, physios, doctors etc. to help them on the road to recovery, which for many an athlete they will hate as they have always been able to be the master of their own journey and now vulnerability has crept in.
Secondly, there is a loss of self-worth, self-esteem, ask any athlete and they love being better than someone else in their field, being able to lift more, throw further, run faster, whatever the sport losing that is the hardest thing to deal with, watching others move forward while you standstill.
So, how do we deal with all these feelings and not get broken by them?
These feelings are totally normal, and if you want to kick start your way back to full fitness then embrace them and use them to help you move forward in your rehab process, both mentally and physically. As with any kinds of loss, the athlete may go through several stages related to mourning, remarkably similar to the famous five stages of death, Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; Acceptance.
Denial is probably the most common in all sports, athletes try to play down the injury, convince themselves it’s not that bad, and in some cases try to train through it, which ultimately makes it worse, this is quickly followed by anger and intense feelings of “why me!!!” and they try to speed up the recovery process or stick a band-aid on the injury and try to “get back out there”. Then there is the internal reasoning we go through in our heads every time we have a setback “if I just do this, I can work round it” but this only leads to prolonging the injury and slowing the healing process which in turn leads to depression and can massively affect your sleeping, appetite and general mood. Until we reach that final stage of acceptance, the feeling that it is what it is, and we have come to the realisation that we now need to fix it.
Fixing the physical now we have fixed the mental
There are many ways in which we can start to cope mentally after an injury, below are just some of the ones I used and helped me to get back to a place where mentally I was ready to start pushing heavy again.
- Let yourself be sad, there is nothing wrong with being sad and pissed off when you are sidelined through injury, being “strong” or bottling up your feelings means it only takes longer to start healing, how does the saying go? “Feeling is healing.”
- What if/Should of, two of the most useless emotional responses to an injury, you can’t change what has happened, but you can change what’s going to happen, so stop with the what-ifs and should of’s, and let’s focus on the what now and will dos.
- Set new goals, chances are you going to be back to 100% eventually but it’s not going to happen overnight and focusing on being as good as you were will only lead to short term frustration, build on new more realistic goals and eventually these will lead to getting you back to full strength. Do not think of it as starting again or being back at square one but more about new goals and improved performance.
- PMA, who remembers the old TV ad for Persil washing powder, with Kris Akabussi, “To perform like Linford, you got to think like Linford, PMA positive mental attitude”, held true in 1995, holds true today, nothing good comes from negativity, it is up to you, no one can do it for you, so you need to believe it is going to happen for it to happen.
- Do not rely on others to do the healing for you, you need to take an active role in your recovery, do the rehab the physio tells you to do, do not do too much, your body will only heal when it’s not put under stress, so overtraining in a bid to get back quicker will only grind you to a halt and you will have to start all over again. Put as much emphasis in your recovery as you did your training.
- BE PATIENT, I can’t stress this one enough, I know it’s frustrating, I know it ruined your plans but rushing back will only prolong the healing process and lead to reinjury further down the line, the goal is to come back better and stronger than you did before the injury but one thing I CAN GUARANTEE is that it’s not going to happen overnight, strength comes in many forms, and having the strength to hold back and be sensible could end up being your biggest battle you ever have in your sporting life but it can also be your biggest strength too.
Any injury, be it temporary or permanent, will always be a massive disruption in your training or competitive career, it will be physically and mentally painful but if you follow the points laid out in this article it will definitely help heal those emotional scars and rebuild your body.
It’s also important to remember that once your back training or back out in the field that the memory of that injury is going to play on your mind, the fear of re-injury can make you focus on what could happen, rather than what you would like to happen. Fear of an injury is perfectly normal but replaying it over and over in your mind can make you feel tight and tense, which in itself could cause a reinjury, so try to focus on the positive, if you have completed your rehab and feel 100% fit then focus on the task ahead instead of worrying about what could happen, focus more on becoming a better athlete, learning your trade and avoiding previous mistakes. Injuries are a part of training, if you’ve never been injured, your either lucky or just not pushing yourself hard enough. Injuries WILL happen, its what we do about them that makes us champions.
If your still struggling to overcome these feelings, then talk to someone who has been there, and come out the other side, or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org cause I’ve definitely had my fair share of injuries and hospitalizations and I’d love to hear your story and help if I can.
Simon “Diesel” Yates