The Gift of Injury

By Jim Davis, EdM, MA, RSCC*D

Part One: The Injury

On July 6, 2020, I went on a jog that changed my life. It was a 90-degree day. Hot and humid. I’d put on a few pounds during quarantine, weighed myself down even further that 4th of July with a weekend full of burgers and hotdogs. I decided that the healthy choice would be go for a jog and sweat it out. Good intentions.

Wicker Park was quiet in the midday heat, so I ran across the road, cut between two parked cars, launched myself up to the sidewalk and… BAM! As I drove my knee upward, it connected solidly with a garden ledge made from an old railroad tie. Running quickly at a bodyweight of 230lbs means that I brought some force to the collision. The garden ledge didn’t budge. I paused for a moment before looking down at my knee. I’ll save the gory details but let’s just say I could see things that I wasn’t supposed to see – things inside my knee.

A quick trip to the emergency room had me stitched up and crutching my way back to work the next day. That day I spent about 10 hours on my feet. The swelling was worse than I thought it would be and that night was a painful one. I went to bed with my leg elevated, hoping to sleep it off.

When I woke the next morning, I was drenched in sweat. I took my temperature and didn’t have a fever so went back to work. This continued for weeks. Pain and swelling during the day, sweating at night. My leg wasn’t getting much better. An MRI about two months after the injury revealed that the initial impact had chipped a piece of bone off the back of my kneecap (a detail the ER doctors missed). The swelling continued, so did the night sweats, and after several doctor visits and blood tests, it was decided that surgery was the best option.

In October of that year, 3.5 months after a knee injury that I thought would clear up quickly, I was going under the knife. Rehab would begin shortly after. I hadn’t been able to jog, lift, or move without a limp since July, and that wouldn’t be changing soon. The frustrations of sedentary life were wearing on me.

Part Two: The Gift

Before getting injured I was used to being active – I played 16 seasons of football and competed in my last powerlifting meet Feb. 2020 (right before quarantine). I wasn’t used to being on the proverbial sideline. My workouts were intense. Fast and heavy. But I had gotten comfortable. I warmed up less than ever before, jumping into heavy squat sets cold just to prove that I was strong. I’d flip a tire or do hang cleans over 300 lbs. just because. My form was not elite, but the weight would still move.

Those habits don’t hold up over a lifetime. That’s how people get hurt.

Oddly enough, it took an injury for me to really look that truth in the mirror. I knew that my training methods weren’t sound. Among other roles, I’m a strength coach. I know what thoughtful training sessions and periodization looks like and I wasn’t holding myself to that standard. The injury forced me to slow down. During recovery, every time I bent to tie my shoes, I was aware of how my hips and knees pivoted. I began to walk with intention. Once the pain receded, I lunged and squatted (with bodyweight only, at first) and worked toward some slow jogging. Every time I rode a bike I was aware of the relationship of my knee to my toes on the pedal.

The gift, I came to realize, was self-awareness.

No longer could I rely on strength to power me through the day – I had to move more thoughtfully than ever, be aware of my joint alignments and pain threshold. I had to be thoughtful about my work and my recovery; thoughtful about how I bent to grab a drink from the refrigerator, thoughtful about tying my shoes. I became intentionally aware of my body. That’s a gift.

There were other gifts as well. Humility came fast. Competing in powerlifting and running through the city one day, then painfully planted on my butt the next. There were no fingers to point, no one to blame, and no magic pill to make me suddenly better. That’s humbling.

The gift that comes right after humility is resilience. As my injury lingered and it was clear that, months later, I’d have to go in for surgery and begin the healing process all over again, I had a choice: feel sorry for myself and slack, or keep a positive attitude and keep moving forward. I’m glad to say I chose the latter. Though there were days I was honestly concerned that I’d never run again, but exactly one year after the collision, I competed in a 5k on Chicago’s South Shore.

Resilience, humility, and self-awareness – thought it was painful at times, these were hard-earned and appreciated gifts.

Part Three: The Opportunity

This wasn’t the first time I’d received the “gift” of injury. In 2016 I separated my shoulder while skateboarding. The rehab made me think about posture and scapular retraction. In college I had an ankle injury that forced me to refocus on my technique – playing through an injured ankle meant every step mattered, literally. Every injury forced me to double-back, to reexamine the foundation of my approach before moving forward… that is, if I choose to see it that way.

In his book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday said, “through our perception of events, we are complicit in their creation.” It’s true. The way we name and choose to perceive the world around us plays a large role in how we experience it. Amid the pain, I chose to focus on the opportunity.

Important to note that a positive attitude can’t artificially gloss over concerns (I broke a piece off my kneecap, that’s not “good” in a traditional way); the pain was real, the challenge was real. But our attitude absolutely impacts how we engage with the concern.

It has been two years since my knee injury and I’m still not back to 100% capacity. There have been countless frustrating times along the way. I could have lamented my poor luck, complained about not being full speed, and felt sorry for myself. Instead, I decided to routinely remind myself that the injury has given me the opportunity to develop those skills of self-awareness, humility, and resilience. It doesn’t make the pain go away, but it influences how I engage with it.

Which ultimately takes us to the real opportunity… how to we apply this approach in other areas of our lives? A quick exercise for any interested practitioners:

  • What are some “injuries” (setbacks) you have experienced in the classroom which you could possibly see as a “gift” or an opportunity to learn from?
  • If you were to reframe a classroom setback as an opportunity, what would your next steps have to be? (Would you have to set aside more time to study? Plan to meet with a teacher?)
  • What are some Self-Talk strategies you can use to help you push through when times get tough? Mine was simply, “you got this.” Some folks go with “this too shall pass” or “I’m on the right path” – those mantras can be very helpful.

These three questions (and variations thereafter) can be applied to an academic setting, a professional setting, and in one’s relationships.

They can also be applied, of course, when coming back from an injury.

This article was originally published on SlowChatHealth, a blog from friend and colleague, Andrew Milne.