Playing Through Pain : How Sports Heroes Are Made

The love a sports player receives from the fans can basically be attributed to a combination of two factors: how well they play, and how hard they play. Indeed, it is in the second area that true heroes are forged. Skills are nothing compared with guts for most fans.

A willingness to play through pain is something the average fan can understand and appreciate far more than sporting ability, perhaps because this is an attainable experience. Most fans play, therefore they all know what a pulled muscle or a dead leg feels like.

Playing through the pain barrier may cement certain performances into the hearts of fans, but it is worth considering the damage encountered by the players and just what are the mental processes behind injured players carrying on. Are they really heroes, or is something more sinister at play?

A player can be sick or injured previous to competition, or they can be injured during the match. Either way, they need to make a choice. Should they sit it out or do they power through with a cocktail of drugs and adrenaline? The majority play. Many players feel an intense pressure to play unless it is absolutely impossible.

The reasons for this go beyond the classic explanation, namely, the fear of letting someone down: whether it be the team, friends or supporters.

Naturally, this motivator is a significant factor in why players risk their fitness. But some sport psychologists now claim that this “warrior” mentality is more closely tied to self-identification.

Sports people have such a prominent role in society, are so valued and so rare, that many in this field see themselves solely in terms of their sporting achievement. Regular people have a multiplicity of aspects of their lives which bring them the required self-esteem to not get too down when one segment of their life is not meeting their expectations.
For sports people, often too much of their self-esteem is tied to what is happening on the field.Clubs and coaches now closely monitor serious injury, as the issue of depression has become serious enough to affect a number of stars. And as modern sport becomes faster, it also becomes much harder.

Rugby Union is a case in point. Former Wallabies test star John Daniell in an article for the Guardian writes that “Rugby players – like most athletes – get used to pain early on, playing with it and through it almost constantly. But there is a danger that your mind is writing cheques your body can’t keep cashing”.

This constant pain, combined with the pressure to keep playing, means that players end up swallowing a bunch of pills.

FIFA reported that 39% of players were on some form of pain killer during the 2012 World Cup. The number could well be higher, and is certainly much greater in the big contact sports like rugby and American football.

These players usually suffer long-term damage of some kind, and the short-term risks are huge. But such is the pressure that players exert on themselves that they will continue testing that hamstring, or risking their fracture, or going out bruised and bandaged, so that they further endear themselves to the crowds.

So, do we glorify them or sanction them? The simple answer is that it depends on who you are.

Sports authorities are responsible for the welfare of the players. Given the uniquely driven impulses of sports men and women, only the organisers of competitions can be trusted to legislate against injury.

Fans are fundamentally tribal, and most studies point to the fact that supporting a team has nothing to do with common sense or rationality. If a player is willing to play on with a blood-splattered shirt or a bandaged shoulder, then they will be rewarded. Very few fans pressure a player to leave the arena when patently injured. Stay in the field, stay in the heart.

There are plenty of examples of how fighting injury has made a player into a legend.

In 2008, Tiger Woods was at the zenith of his career. His sporting greatness was confirmed through his awesome record, but then he further endeared himself to his fans when he played through pain to win the US Open that year.

Not expected to last the pace, he entered nonetheless and managed to haul the leaders in by shooting a 30 on the front nine of the second round. Seeing softness in the players ahead of him, he managed a 73 on the final day, setting up a draw and a play-off against Rocco Mediate.

Barely able to walk, he fought through the pain and won the tournament by a stroke.

Woods ‘ determination would go on to be unblemished until 2009, when caught out playing fast and loose with his marital vows.

Modern football is cursed by images of players like Real Madrid’s Pepe acting out pretend injuries, but has its share of footballing heroics. The most famous picture is that of a bandaged and blood-soaked Terry Butcher.

The rugged defender stayed on the field after receiving a head wound and helped England to an important World Cup qualifying draw against Sweden. His never-say-substitute-me attitude became a defining image for the much-loved national team that would battle its way to the semi-finals a year later.

But a cut to the head is nothing compared with the injury Bert Trautmann suffered in the 1956 FA Cup Final. The Manchester City goalkeeper sustained a broken neck 15 minutes before the final whistle with his team 3-1 up.

He made two important saves to protect the lead and entered the hall of legends that day.

Of course, a full on contact sport like American Football is going to give you plenty of opportunities to see cracked bones and blood. For example, Jack Youngblood of the LA Rams was a fantastic player, but his true fame comes from the fact that he played not one but THREE play-off matches with a fractured fibula.

But the most graphic, in more ways than one, illustration of dedication is the story of Ronnie Lott’s finger. In the final week of the regular 1985 season, the San Francisco player got his finger caught in the helmet grill of an opponent. His pinkie was duly mangled. He played in the next match, but on learning that he needed a complicated operation to save the digit, he made a choice. Rather than missing any of the following season, he had the end of his finger amputated.

These stories serve to illustrate a point that is both saddening and uplifting: we need these players to be more than just people. But they need this feeling more than even the fans.

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