Beauty of Pain

Spencer McLachlin, Cal Volleyball Assistant Coach

Wake up, roll out of bed, and as my feet hit the carpet I hope my first steps will be ache free.

Is today going to be a good day for the knees? A couple of single leg quarter squats will test it…. all good, no pain. Back? Crack, crack, and crack. Check. As I do arm circles, a mannerism that has become like a twitch along with the squats and back cracks, I wonder about the stability of my shoulder. Will it pop out again? I hear my ankles crack about ten times on my first couple of steps. I feel like a Jiffy Lube employee inspecting the oil, brakes, and tires.

Do other athletes have weird thoughts and idiosyncrasies to check if their body is in one piece? Do other athletes think about utilizing their glutes to take away pain when walking downstairs? Can I remember the last time I walked downstairs without feeling like a rusty nail was hammered into the bottom of my kneecaps?

Pain is something every athlete encounters. Pain is a feeling only you can gauge and the smiley/frowning face test at the doctors just doesn’t seem to measure it. Some people come back from surgeries in six months while others need nine. Does that make them stronger or have a higher pain tolerance?

Like most obstacles, how you deal with pain determines a lot for a career. I felt the injury bug was like an obnoxious fly spending time on a different part of my body until I shooed it away with physical therapy and painkillers. Then, like all annoying flies, it landed on another body part. I had a subluxation of my shoulder, had a second-degree ankle sprain, and tendonosis of my patella tendons in both knees all in a span of a year and a half. I had aspirations of walking into the Stanford Hall of Fame. Then I found myself spending more time in the physical therapy room instead of the weight room. All of these injuries shook my confidence and made me question the fairness of a higher power, or the existence of one at all…why is this happening to me? How long can I keep playing?

My body is my job. I can’t take practices off because of aches and pains because I’m getting paid to play a game I love. In my time as a professional and collegiate athlete, I’ve learned how to cope with pain, but also how it makes me stronger. If my knees are hurting in practice, it’s because I’m not going hard enough in the weight room. If my shoulders are feeling weak, its elastic band time. Endless sets of 20 reps that make my rotator cuff feel like there’s a blowtorch burning a hole in it.

I’ve learned that the pain I suffer now reduces the chances of me hurting later. It’s easy to see athletes perform and admire how effortlessly, or painlessly, they run and jump. But we don’t see the hours of preparation, and injury prevention, those athletes spend in the weight and training rooms. We also can’t feel their pain. We don’t know what Kevin Ware or Anderson Silva felt when their legs shattered.

I believe my health is in my control. When freak accidents happen, its okay to feel depressed, like the world is against you. But I know I can come back if I give it my all. I know a guy who came back from four ACL tears. Kevin Ware is playing. Putting things in perspective helps me focus on treating my nagging aches and pains. I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing. I know that I love my sport. I guess my body will tell me when its time to hang up the shoes.