Playing through pain
[Kirsten Norrell (far left) has played through injuries throughout her rugby career at St. Bonaventure University - Image courtesy of Kayla O’Keefe]
Professors say injuries take psychological and physical toll on students on and off the field
By Tony Lee, editor in chief, @sHecKii
ST. BONAVENTURE (May 18) — Kirsten Norrell tackles leading with her left shoulder.
Not the right; the left only.
Not only that, the senior rugby captain said she ignored the warning signs of a concussion for the fear of getting taken out off the field, too.
Norrell, a biology major, said she never went to a doctor for those injuries. She didn’t see the need.
Despite not being able to play the sport she loves without physical and psychological limitations, Norrell said she played though it all — not because she doesn’t know any better, but because everyone else does it, too.
“Generally, I think that most athletes love the sports they play, so they will do anything to stay in the game,” said Norrell, who rowed throughout high school. “They may ignore injuries … Athletes are known to push their bodies past the extremes of what others consider normal.”
Norrell embodies 75 percent of St. Bonaventure University student athletes play through injuries, according to Melissa McCombs, an assistant athletic trainer.
However, Charles Walker, a psychology professor, said the psychological toll an athlete experiences can become more severe than the injury itself.
“You may have had an image of yourself through some kind of a hero superstar,” Walker said of Division I athletes. “Now all of the sudden, they are vulnerable. A sense of ethicacy is challenged — you probably have anxiety problems because of it — and they have to restructure who they are.”
McCombs said athletes would often conceal their injuries.
“They’re trying to do the mind over matter thing,” she said. “Psychologically, you have to just sit them down and make them realize this is what you need to do to heal.”
Walker, who studies students’ well being, said an injury can be a source of an unhealthy internal struggle.
“There’s such a powerful attraction to continue to do your part because your teammates are counting on you and you can’t let them down,” he said. “You probably have the false hope that you can play through the injury.”
Denny Wilkins, the university’s faculty athletics representative, said he always came back from an injury prematurely as an athlete.
However, he said one injury led to another, and it ended his athletics career prematurely, too.
“I tell them despite pressure from coaches, teammates — but mostly the pressure they put on themselves,” Wilkins said, “don’t come back too soon.”
Some didn’t have a choice.
Charlie Specht, ’10, could not play rugby again after dislocating an eye socket and breaking his orbital bone, nose, cheekbone and jaw in a game.
His doctor said if he suffers another facial injury, they may not be able to surgically put his face back together.
Still, the injury alone didn’t keep him away.
“While I was in the hospital, I realized even though I love the game more than any of the sports I’ve ever played,” he said, “it wasn’t worth putting my fiancee and my mother through that.”
William Elenchin, a sociology professor, said athletes live in a norm where everyone strives for distinction and would go through anything to compete.
He said student athletes tend to put unrealistic expectations on themselves, too.
“Here we’re talking about pushing the envelope to be the best of the best,” said Elenchin, who teaches Sociology 420, Special Studies: Sociology of Sports.
Despite suffering a career-ending injury, Specht said he still yearned to compete.
“I actually took my gear, put it in my rugby bag and locked it away in my attic,” he said. “I know if I had it out there, I would be tempted to play again.”
Walker said injuries could consume a student athlete’s mind in and out of classrooms.
However, Wilkins, a professor of journalism and mass communication, said student athletes with injuries in his classes didn’t let it affect their academics.
“I haven’t seen an injury take someone from a B to a D in any of my classes,” he said. “These are focused people.”
Norrell said she witnessed a player dislocating her shoulder badly that it required an ambulance. The last time Norrell talked to her, she had only partial function of her arm.
Despite being able to tackle only with her left side, knowing fully an inadvertent right-shoulder tackle could potentially lead to a similar fate, Norrell said she played through the injuries and kept it to herself.
All because she said she didn’t want to be taken out of the game.
“It’s not smart,” Norrell said, “but it’s a very common response with athletes.”