One year. One whole year. One whole year since I played my last game of rugby. So I made that sound quite dramatic but tbh it’s a pretty big deal for me. When all of your free time pretty much revolves around something, it’s never gonna be easy when you can’t do it. It feels like it’s been ages, but not a whole year. I guess that’s a good thing, right?
So as the first anniversary of my good ol ligament reconstruction comes around I thought it was finally time to put pen to paper. Or words on the web if you will. I’ve thought about writing this for a fair while just for myself really, but also cos I’ve actually found myself googling similar things on more than one occasion, so who knows maybe it’ll help someone else out. So, what’s it’s actually like to deal with an injury?
Before the op
So way back in Feb 2017 I was playing a game of rugby like I normally would on a Sunday. After fracturing my fibula the year before I always wore my ankle support – an AirCast 60, the one with two beaut pieces of metal either side that steadied and supported my ankle so beautifully well. Except for the first time, I’d managed to forget it.
Obviously I didn’t think too much of it and thought it’d be fine. But in the first few minutes of the game I was tackled side on and I can confirm it didn’t go well. I got up right away but with a bit of a hobble and remember thinking to myself that I should tell my coach that I might not be able to play the whole game. But lol of course I didn’t tell him and of course I finished the game. It was sore but fine. I drove home and went travelling two weeks later, not thinking anything of it because it wasn’t bruised and not particularly swollen. I didn’t even RICE it.
I went skiing on it, did a 3 day trek up a volcano, scuba dived, walked miles, and God knows what else on it. It was a little uncomfortable in certain positions but generally fine, but I could kind of tell that something wasn’t ‘right’. So when I came home and about 9 months after I did it, I finally went to see the doc, got referred to a consultant and low and behold he could pretty much pull my foot from its socket. Top bants. An MRI confirmed I’d completely ruptured my ATFL and CFL, and I was booked in to have them reconstructed about 2 months later.
Preparing to go under the knife
To be honest I think having a bit of time before the op was a good thing. Having not played for 7 months while finding myself around the globe I was absolutely buzzing to get back playing, so it would’ve been harder to suddenly have to stop again. It meant that I got half a season with my club before the op, become captain of my team and play for Herts uni. It gave me a chance to accept that I wouldn’t be able to play for a while and what would be the longest I’d ever had away from the game. Realistically I think I knew all along that it probs needed surgery, so although still not pleasant to hear, I wasn’t overly shocked. I continued to play until my op because in my mind they were gonna fix it anyway so I may as well! My last game was 5 days before the op and I was playing for the uni, I scored a try, set up a fair few and we won with a convincing score line. An all round decent last game (although I did get studded in the calf and it ripped the muscle, creating my best bruise to date and leaving a permanent hole in my calf, much to the delight/horror of the various physios I’ve seen since 👍🏻).
The 30th of January finally came around and it was time to fix my ankle. I was ready for it. I’d done my prehab, had accepted I would be off my feet for a while and was ready to start the long process of returning to play. Although it was always going to be a bit shit not being able to play, I wanted to put the time to good use and make myself faster, fitter and stronger than I was before the op. This was the mentality I had going into it and I do think it massively helped.
Ngl the first week was pretty rough. Despite having general anaesthetic twice before and being fine straight away, this time it took me about a week and a half to get over it. I ended up having to stay in the hospital overnight, got picked up with the dog (Bebe G/best girl/bae/love of my life) in the car ready to take her to the vets, where she needed emergency surgery. Pretty sure I cried most of the way home after dropping her off, as we didn’t know if she’d even make it through the surgery given she was 15. So that was the first challenge I guess, but Tia was fine and I only slipped in her piss once while hurrying as fast as I could on my crutches on my way to throw up. Lol.
Getting my cast off
As expected, I was absolutely buzzing to get my cast off. That first bath was an absolute beaut, and I was so excited to start the proper rehab. As soon as I could weight bare I started doing laps around my kitchen island. On lap 4 four I got some intense calf cramp and retired back to the sofa, but was adamant I’d make it to lap five the next day.
Mentally, I think the first month after getting my cast off was one of the toughest. I found it alright watching my teammates play when I was in a cast, cos I physically couldn’t run with it on. But as soon as that came off, you have to stop yourself doing these things, rather than having a physical thing stopping you.
I was finishing off my marketing course throughout the injury process, which probably helped an awful lot when I think about it as it clashed with Wednesday rugby training. It would’ve been so much harder if I had to sit and watch my mates train, but luckily my Wednesday night lecture meant I was elsewhere. But this didn’t stop me watching training or matches on a Sunday. Rugby is such an inclusive sport which is formed around so much more than a game, so there’s always ways to stay involved and be part of the team. I know a few pals who’ve stepped away for a while whether it be through injury or something else, but have found it hard to suddenly come back, so I really do think it’s great to stay involved in whatever capacity you can.
For me, seeing my team play is motivation every week to get myself back on that pitch. Don’t get me wrong it really is hard watching your pals from the sideline week in week out, but if I can learn something each week no matter how small it may be, or be able to help my team out whether it’s coaching, being the water girl or simply being a cheerleader, I always look for those small things to bring positivity to my situation. And realistically, what the hell would I be doing if I wasn’t doing something rugby related?!
Looking for the positives
So following on from looking for the positives at rugby even though I’m not playing, I think it’s super important to do this in all aspects of your rehab. Celebrate those first steps walking normally, that extra millimetre in your range of motion, that first little jog, the first training session where you could actually get involved, even if it was non contact.
Breaking down the rehab process into small steps makes it manageable and genuinely enjoyable. If you’re constantly thinking about how far away you are from returning to play, you’re constantly going to be putting yourself down. But breaking it down into small milestones provides stepping stones to your end goal, rather than seeing it as one long leap that seems impossibly far away.
I’ve also found a lot of positives along the way that I didn’t expect to. For example, since seeing my first physio a few years ago I’ve had a bit of an interest in the body’s mechanics and how it all works. This injury has really sparked that little passion, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed learning and researching everything around my injury and beyond. I’ve always loved food and have had an increasing interest in the nutrition side of it since uni, but my drive to learn more about it has undoubtedly grown throughout the injury process.
Focussing my efforts elsewhere
I’m the kinda person that will give something my absolute all if I’m passionate about it. I’m normally really not a fan of talking to new people, but if they ask me about rugby I’d happily talk away for hours and hours. So having an injury meant I wasn’t physically able to give rugby my all. I needed to be able to channel that passion some other way, so right from the day I found out I needed an op I was determined to make sure I returned a better player than I was before. This has meant that I’ve had somewhere to focus all my efforts, be it in the gym, doing sprints on my own on a boiling day, or nutritionally. I’ve really grown to love pushing myself in ways I never really have before. It’s fired my drive in everything I do. I now go to the gym before work, which is something I never thought I’d do because I bloody love my sleep. From being someone who used to sleep until 2pm at the weekends a few years ago, I’ve basically changed my whole body clock and can wholeheartedly say I’m now a morning person, which my parents are definitely still struggling to come to terms with.
I’ve really gone hard with all my rehab. My collection of therabands and resistance bands is truly outstanding and I’m incredibly proud of my rainbow of a collection. I brush my teeth while standing on my wobble board, foam roll more than ever, and can actually touch more toes for the first time since I was little. Our Director of Rugby at the club happens to be an osteopath (and ex-professional player), and he commended me for my results in my proprioception tests, saying it was the best he’s seen, and I’m super chuffed with that!
Unfortunately there’s always a possibility of set backs and unluckily for me I’ve had my fair share. Looking back I totally see that setting myself a 7 month goal of returning to play wasn’t ever going to be realistic, but I’ve now also surpassed three “match fit” goal dates since then.
My first six months were pretty plain sailing, I was on track to return to contact on the nine month mark as told by my surgeon at the start. However, seven months in I managed to fall down an actual rabbit hole and went over on the ‘bad’ ankle. It hurt but I was mainly scared that I’d completely fucked it and would be back to square one. Thankfully it was only a mild sprain and I was back to my sport specific training within two or three weeks.
Then came the realisation that my shoulder had been popping in and out for a little while and that it probably isn’t normal. I tried to think back to when it first started hurting and could only recall two possible events – playing catch with my bro in May or me plus a rather large prop landing on it back during a match in the previous October. I realised that was what was keeping me from doing strict pull-ups because it would pop out when I was dead hanging, so it physically wouldn’t move. So I figured it was time to see someone about it and I was then told I had a labral tear in my shoulder. I cracked on with my rehab but frustratingly saw little improvement. Fast forward 5 months and I’m still waiting on an Arthrogram to see what’s going on 🤞🏻
Meanwhile I adjusted my training in the gym to try and get the shoulder strong and stable enough to return to contact at the nine month mark. On my first proper reintroduction to contact I managed to sprain my ‘good’ ankle. It hurt a lot, and I had to crawl off the pitch and sit out. The pain eased a bit after ten mins and I got back to my feet and was able to walk around. It was just one of those super unlucky things, but it got more sore on the drive home and that evening. I pulled onto my dad’s drive after training and burst into tears as soon as I turned the engine off. Not because of the pain but because I was terrified I’d done the same as I had to the OG bad ankle, and that I’d have to go through all of this again. This was definitely the lowest point of this whole journey, and made me feel pretty sad, angry and frustrated for a few days after, which isn’t like me at all. It was really shit having to regress my training so much after feeling like I’d come such a long way. Thankfully being a bit of a cankle pro by now, I knew what to do and RICEd the shit out of it, looking after it 100 times better than the OG bad ankle. It was super swollen for about a week and I managed to damage a nerve which lingered for about two months, but I accepted it and was back to feeling my usual positive self thanks to the support of the people around me. It’s been three months since I did it and it’s still not right, but I know all too well how long ligaments take to heal so I just gotta be patient with it, and remember that it’s still so much better than it was and now only tingles if you touch a certain point! And hey, at least I’ve got symmetrical cankles a now.
Returning to play
So as I mentioned I set myself various dates that I wanted to be back playing for – all realistic at the time but my recent injuries have meant I’ve missed them all. I’ve come to realise that I don’t need to set a date to try and return by. It’s going to happen when it happens. Setting dates adds pressure, and ultimately if I’m not ready I’m not ready, it’s only going to make me sad and frustrated that I’ve missed another match. So now when people ask me when I’ll be back I generally reply with “I’m not too sure, whenever I’m ready”.
I just think to myself that the longer it takes me to return just means the more time I have to make myself a better player. I’ve come to realise that there’s no point rushing back to it only to get injured again. When I do eventually get match ready whenever that may be, at least I’ll know that I really have given it my all. I do feel stronger, faster and fitter than I ever have. A year away from something I love isn’t a massive deal in the grand scheme of things – I’ve (hopefully) got another 60 years of life in me, this year I’ve bettered myself in so many ways physically and mentally that’ll benefit me in the future.
Lil bit scary
I obviously cannot wait to get back on the pitch, but the thought of that is also moderately terrifying. The idea of full on contact really does scare me, and that’s something I’ve never experienced before. I know I’ve worked my arse off to get fully fit but that doesn’t stop the fear of getting injured from creeping/absolutely flooding in. I still 100% want to be back as soon as I physically can, but I know there’s also a mental side to it that I’ll need to overcome.
But for now, I’m waiting to hear about my shoulder, taking a couple of steps back in my training after hyperextending my knee two weeks ago (lol I literally cannot catch a break from these injuries), but I’m still giving it my all, and ultimately that’s all I can do. I’m reflecting on how far I’ve come in the last year – how much I’ve learnt, how much it’s challenged me but also bettered me. I’m lucky that I’m generally a very optimistic person, and I think that has been key throughout arguably the hardest year to date. With help from my teammates, PT, and just some hard graft, I’m stronger, fitter, faster and more motivated than I ever have been, and I cannot wait to see what the next year brings.
Let’s wrap it up
So, I think we’ve established that yeah, injuries are a bit shit. But it’s the hand we’ve dealt and there’s no changing it, you just gotta crack on and make the most of it. So here’s my main advice to anyone who’s picked up an injury:
- Accept it – it is what it is.
- Adapt – an injury doesn’t mean you have to completely stop doing something. Yes you might not be able to play a match, but you can still be there as no.1 cheerleader and water girl. Just focus all that energy and effort into the things you can do.
- Rehab works – do your physio exercises, foam rolling, stretching, then rest and do it all again. Trust the process.
- Make it worthwhile – if you’re spending time away from the thing you love you may as well make it worthwhile. Use it as an opportunity to better yourself in every aspect. Make your weaknesses your strengths.
- Be patient – it takes time. There is absolutely no point rushing back into things and re-injuring yourself, as it’ll just lengthen the process.
- Stay positive – probably the hardest one, but the most important. There’s bound to be ups and downs along the way and that’s completely fine, but try and look for even the tiniest positives in everything. Surrounding yourself with supportive people will make this way easier, and don’t be afraid to talk to your teammates or pals if you’re struggling. Always look how far you’ve come and not how far you’ve got to go, and just remember there will always be someone in a worse situation to you.