The Long Run: Injured Athletes Face Difficult Choice

Your team has worked hard all year to get where you are now. You’re staring success in the face, but you’re becoming more uneasy and increasingly aware of a pain in your leg. What do you do? Your team needs you on the field, the win is in view and you’re in pain, but if you’re benched your fate is in the hands of others. So you play on.

Student athletes Riley Smetzler, Jenna Young and Zack Hofschneider, who know this dilema like the back of their hands, said that student athletes often keep injuries private because of the pressure to perform.

Young, a freshman on Clark’s soccer team, has had four knee surgeries — three on her left and one on her right — and torn her ACL and meniscus. Young said she has a lot of experience with the pressures players face.

“Especially at a collegiate level, we’re all here to take it to the next step,” Young said. “We’re trying to do all we can to get noticed, and if you’re sitting on a bench, then you don’t get noticed.”

Young said she deals with residual pain from the surgeries. “During games it’ll hurt really bad,” she said. “I’ll be to the point where I need to cry, but I just hold it in and keep playing.” She said that if she were benched, it wouldn’t be likely that she would get back into the game.

Kristin Woitte, Clark’s licensed athletic trainer, said benched players handle not only physical pain, but emotional lows as well. “You’ve taken them out of their role,” she said. “You’ve taken them out of physical and emotional participation with their team.”

Young said a lot of the struggle involved her responsibility to her team. “It’s definitely disheartening having to tell your coach, I’m sorry, I can’t step up to the plate for you,” Young said. “I’m back here when I should be up there for you.”

Young isn’t the only athlete that feels this way. Hofschneider, a student ambassador and sophomore member of the track and field team, said bringing up an injury feels like letting his coach down.

Smetzler, a sophomore on the soccer team who tore and re-tore her ACL, said it can feel like being replaced when the team finds someone else to play your role. “That was your moment to show what you’ve been paid to do,”  she said. “And you blew it.”

Woitte said the Athletics department works to get injured students back to participating, but many students still operate based on a long-standing misconception that an injury means expulsion from the team.

Students should be looking at the big picture, Woitte said. “In the long run, do you want to miss out on a short period of time to get yourself right and be back in participation, or do you want to keep going with it and try to play through something, and then end up being out for the season?” she said. “There are times when it’s like, well, if this happened three weeks ago, why didn’t you say anything?”

Smetzler said she didn’t say anything when she pulled her hamstring on the first day of soccer practice. Being a team captain during her last year playing for the team, Smetzler kept the injury unspoken and suffered the effects throughout the season.

When her team competed in the NWAC semifinals in Seattle last season, she had her leg wrapped and taped up so she could play. “I hate sitting on the sidelines and watching something happen,” she said, although she wishes she had dealt with it earlier.

Smetzler said that as team captain, several teammates came to her for advice about injuries. If she directed them to speak to the coach, she said, a lot of them brushed it off.

“We encourage our athletes to bring things up before they get to the point that it’s debilitating and takes them out of the game,” Woitte said. She said she’s dealt with students who’ve suffered more severe issues because they delayed seeking treatment.

Hofschneider said he has been forthcoming with his injuries. He said he strained his back lifting weights in November, and has been working towards a full recovery. He said coming to school was a challenge. He experienced massive amounts of pain sitting up straight and sometimes had to have his brother put his shoes on.

Hofschneider advised students concerned about an injury was to “Let [coaches] know. You have to attack this issue right on. You never know how it’ll affect you in the future.”

“Ultimately it should be fun,” Smetzler said. If you’re always stressed about an injury, she said, something has to change.  Young said that if you put your heart and soul into it, you’ll know how to strike a balance between taking one for the team and knowing when to quit.

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