For most MLS players, preseason is about building themselves up so that they are ready to perform at their best when the regular season starts in March. However, for Portland Timbers midfielder Will Johnson, this preseason is about continued patience and determination, after more than four months have passed since his last game. In an away match against Toronto FC in September, Johnson suffered a fractured tibia and fibula in his right leg. For Portland’s captain, the mental challenges of this injury have, at times, been more frustrating than the physical pain he has endured. For 12 weeks following the setback, Johnson was unable to put weight on his right leg, and could not even pick up his newborn son for several days after the injury occurred. For a long period of time, his only option involved sitting on the couch. “Those things really break you down far more than any pain physically,” Johnson said. “Just the mental side of things when I was in the cast.” Looking forward, however, Portland’s captain seems to be confronting this mental challenge head-on. “What happened, happened…You can’t change that, so my mindset from day one post-surgery has always been just to take every day as it comes, and whatever the body allows you to do to push it to that point and use that to just get back fit, 100 percent as quickly as possible…I’m taking it one day at a time…listen to the leg, listen to the body. I want to use this opportunity that I’ve had to rebuild the foundation of my body and strength, and come back in better shape than I was when I left.”
While injuries of this severity can be a nightmare for any player, no injury is easy to cope with, regardless of how long it takes you away from the game. It is natural to feel upset, disappointed, or frustrated following these setbacks, especially when you know that you will be sidelined for a long period of time. However, once you have had the chance to digest your circumstances, recognize what you can control, and what you cannot. While you can’t change the fact that you are injured, you can control your mentality moving forward, to ensure that you make the most of your recovery. It is common for players to want to return to training quickly, and besides your own expectations, you may even feel pressure to do so from teammates, coaches, or parents. However, you have a responsibility to them and yourself to ensure that you are physically and mentally ready to return when you are cleared to do so. One of the important steps players can take to mentally respond to an injury involves focusing on a process of “reconditioning”, rather than rehabilitation or recovery. In other words, rather than striving to get back to where you were prior to the injury, your focus, like Johnson’s, should be on returning to the field both physically and mentally stronger than you were before the setback. In the early stages of a serious injury, when you are unable to do much physically, this may mean that you watch your own game film or study professional players who play in your position, to develop a better understanding of your role. In the later stages, in addition to addressing the injured body part, it may mean using the time to put in extra work on your weaknesses (e.g., your upper body strength). Throughout the reconditioning process, stay informed by communicating with your doctor, trainer, and coach, and rely on these and other forms of social support (e.g., teammates, family, and friends) to help you manage any of the psychological or emotional challenges you may face. While Johnson undoubtedly wants to return to the field as soon as possible, teammates and coaches are relying on him to continue working with determination and patience so that he can come back stronger than he was before.
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