Over the past few weeks, there’s been a re-emergence of sports-related articles written by former athletes who can no longer play due to injury or they grew out of the youth athletics they thrived in. These articles usually have a similar tone; they miss sports, wish they hadn’t taken the time for granted and encourage athletes who are still able to play to cherish every moment. A topic and theme that runs across all of these articles is the experience of having a team. In sports, no matter what level of competition, your team is a big deal. These are the people who have your back both on and off the court/field/rink; your team mates become your second family and become a significant part of your life. These articles don’t speak to my experience of team in youth sports; based on my experience of being a youth athlete who can no longer play sports due to an injury, I would like to offer a different perspective of team being a romanticized notion.
Growing up, I played basketball, soccer, volleyball and ran track/cross country at both school and competitive levels. I was on a lot of teams over the years and can understand the bond one feels when they are apart of one. The final team I played on was the Niagara Falls Red Raiders travel basketball team. The team was made up of girls I had played with for years, including on school teams and other sports teams, under someone who had coached us for 4 years. We spent a lot of time together; we travelled all over the province together, stayed in hotels for tournaments, became close with each others’ families and we were friends off the court. It may then come as a surprise that I do not miss my team and wouldn’t want to be a part of one again.
I fall under the category of former athletes who stopped playing sports due to an injury. For those that have followed the Faculty of Community Services Student Life Blog over the years, you may know about my injury but for those who haven’t, my injury is a traumatic brain injury. During a tournament in Michigan when I was 16, another player cross checked me which tore brain tissue and ultimately ended my ability to play sports. As I sat on the bench following the hit, I was still part of the team; my team mates tripped the girl who hit me. When I didn’t show up for a tournament two weeks later, I was no longer a part of the team.
It’s been almost 8 years since I acquired my brain injury and I can count the people on my team, including players, coaches and parents, who have asked how I am, on one hand. Those who have met in the past 5 years know my brain injury as something that gives me a headache every now and then, makes me tired and is represented in the ribbon I have tattooed on my back. Despite having a brain injury, I don’t miss any classes at school and participate fully in student groups and social life. For the first few years after my injury this was not the case; I was noticeably not well, I dropped down to one class a day, rarely participated in school life and didn’t return to sports. Despite being present for when I was injured and the clear indications that something was wrong, only two parents ever asked if I was okay. From what I remember, only one of my teammates asked how I was doing and I never heard from my coach.
This popular notion of a team being a second family that is there for you unconditionally both during and after the game is much romanticized. Membership to such a group and the benefits that come from having a team are dependent on one’s athletic ability and ability to perform. As soon as you’re not useful in terms of performing athletically, you are no longer a part of the team.
This is compounded by popular ideas that true athletes are tough and can play through any injury, and that anything less is an insult to the team and sport. Athletes face a lot of pressure when they acquire injuries that temporarily remove them from the game; imagine acquiring an injury that permanently removed you. It was never explained to my team why I would not be returning, my coach simply told them that I was not coming. The assumption became that I was leaving basketball by choice and was letting my team down. My nickname on the team was Mighty Mouse (I’m 5’3), I should have been able to play through anything, right?
Despite my injury and reactions from the Niagara Falls basketball community, I still wanted to be on the team. Five months after my injury, school basketball was starting up again; I went to the first try-out and asked if I could still practice and travel with the team. During that practice, my coach made several comments about getting me back in the game and my return to basketball being the overall goal. As great as it felt to be with my team and practice, it as clear I didn’t belong here anymore.
I had clear instructions that I was not to play and that playing sports would not be in my future. On the traumatic brain injury scale, my injury fell at the beginning of a moderate injury; I’ve recovered more than expected considering the severity and location of the tears. This type of injury is extremely rare in sports and is generally seen in high speed vehicular accidents. Playing sports is an extremely dangerous activity for me that could result in further injury that would have negative impacts on my life. Despite the risk and danger, my coach and teammates were only concerned about my ability to provide athletic contributions to the team.
To my fellow former athletes whose careers were ended by injuries, where does that leave us? There is nothing wrong with looking back at the fond memories you’ve had with sports teams but I think we shouldn’t romanticize the concept of a team. First, we put teams on undeserving pedestals based on false notions of friendship and security. Second, we’re never going to get that back so why frame teams as the ‘be all and end all’ of support?
Eight years post-injury, the best advice I can offer is to find a new form of a team. It’s time to find people, whether that be friends or family, whose friendship and support isn’t conditional on your athletic abilities. Find people that see you for more than your athletic talents who won’t base an entire friendship around such criteria. The girlfriends I have made in the Social Work program at Ryerson don’t care that I can’t play sports; two of my friends signed up for kickboxing this semester, which is something I cannot do, but I wasn’t shunned from the group for it. There are better friends out there than teams, we just need to find new passions and look for them.
There may be no “I” in team but there is certainly is in injury.