The Untethered Athlete

All athletes get injured. The best ones use the injury as an excuse to come back better than they were before they were hurt. Others may not be able to. This may, in part, be due to their inability to let go of the self-image they are attached to.  Here are some tips for avoiding that trap.

The Untethered Athlete The Stone Clinic

The severity of injuries varies. There are injuries which leave people with significant disabilities, and others that just take a long time to heal. Most injuries heal on their own or can be repaired. We, as surgeons and therapists, can control many but not all of the outcomes. While it used to be said that, after the initial intervention by the medical and surgical team, the rest was up to the patient, the reality is that the “rest” is actually quite susceptible to intervention by the caregivers.  

Before you get injured—meaning, now—spend some time thinking about your image of your athletic self. What do you see? Are you fitter than you have ever been? Are you muscular, toned, trim, and powerful? Are you a couch potato? Are you the image of yourself in your youth, or the image of your parents? Of all the things about yourself that you take for granted, what would it be like if you lost just one of these qualities, or even two?

Next, ask several objective people to assess you. A trainer, a physical therapist, or a coach. Really take an honest inventory of your physical attributes and skills. Then look at all the sports and activities that you don’t do and widen your vision of yourself in the athletic world.

Almost nobody does this unless they are competing to make a team and a coach takes the time to share his or her assessments. You might have been trying out for a quarterback position, but the coach may see your potential as a running back, to use a football analogy. If you do this self-analysis, you may refine your own picture of yourself and your potential. This becomes phenomenally helpful if you get injured.

After people are injured, I see a wide range of responses. These are often based on the person’s flexibility in thinking about themselves—including their ability to absorb the loss, take inventory of what is and isn’t available to work with, and how they will engage in a recovery program. Those people for whom a realistic self-imagery is absent, or locked into one vision, are often seriously hampered by their injury.

Your caregivers play a huge role in assisting you in developing your other selves. If they are tethered to an image of you as a patient—an image they may form on first meeting you—they may not bring a commitment to the care that achieves your goals. But the physicians, surgeons, and therapists who treat you as a person with infinite potential will start you down the road of becoming a better athlete—though maybe different—than you were before you were injured. These caregivers will repair your injuries in order to facilitate a return to sports, focus their words and actions on partnering with you to set new goals, and bring creativity and inventiveness to the science and practice of medicine. This partnership in injury recovery, if directed not just on recovery but on improvement, determines the final outcome for many.

Those who have the flexibility to see themselves as athletes in training for the same or a new sport, despite their injury, excel. Those who engage the care team with the same vision, excel even more.

We are all often tethered to our own models of ourselves, and we broadcast those images to others. Developing a range of new pictures requires insight and imagination. Untethering our self-imagery and allowing new models of ourselves to be enjoyable prepares us for the unexpected. Why wait? You might even try them on before you get hurt.



Medically authored by
Kevin R. Stone, MD
Orthopaedic surgeon, clinician, scientist, inventor, and founder of multiple companies. Dr. Stone was trained at Harvard University in internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery and at Stanford University in general surgery.