Saturday 17 February 2018

Easier but not wiser to play through pain

Richard Sadlier is still suffering because he wasn't brave enough to admit his injuries

Richard Sadlier

Richard Sadlier

On the morning of a game in March 2003 I couldn't walk my dogs without limping uncomfortably. It was 12 months since I first injured my hip and I was due to play against Wimbledon later that day. I convinced myself I would be ok once I did a full warm-up so I declared myself fit to start. Unsurprisingly, I was showered and changed before half-time. I don't think I lasted 25 minutes.

Why I thought I would be ok is beyond me, but why I couldn't speak up and be honest was of more concern. Playing through pain is generally regarded as a demonstration of strength. It is seen as a show of toughness and the players who do so are widely praised. They're the type that managers want, team-mates respect, the media glorify and supporters admire. I tried to be one of those players towards the end my career, something for which I am currently paying a very high price.

Robbie Keane joined up with the Ireland squad last week despite an injury to his Achilles. He is due to see a specialist tomorrow and is expected to require surgery. His decision to delay treatment was seen as an example of his unwavering commitment to play for his country. Daniel Sturridge started for England against Germany despite limping out of training the day before with a thigh problem. He has been carrying the injury for some time but his decision to remain on the pitch for the 90 minutes might have prevented him having such a telling impact on yesterday's Merseyside derby.

The specifics of either injury don't matter. Both chose to play while carrying an injury and would have received encouragement and praise for doing so.

I first injured my hip in the early stages of a game but stayed on the pitch until the final whistle. I didn't allow myself to ask to be taken off. I couldn't train the following day but insisted I was available for a game 48 hours after that. Despite painkilling injections prior to kick-off, I only lasted 12 minutes. I repeated that pattern several times during the remaining 18 months of my career – feel pain, say nothing, play, and make it worse – while all the time getting praise for not giving up.

I placed huge importance on playing every game at that time. I focused solely on the short-term benefits and ignored the potential for long-term damage. I did everything I could to stay on the pitch, but it wasn't until I faced a second operation that things started to become serious.

The long-term damage of having the procedure was explained to me in great detail. I would be ensuring significant problems for myself in later life if I went ahead with it so the surgeon took great care in outlining the risks. Both the manager and the chairman were with me in the room but I took all of two seconds before giving my answer. Why they thought I'd consider not having it was a mystery to me. I was 23 and my mid-30s seemed a life-time away. They said I'd be in real trouble by then if things didn't work out, but I figured if I got to play football in the meantime, what harm? If the alternative was to retire then it wasn't much of a choice.

The more I think back to that period the greater understanding I have of what drove me. There was a time when I thought I was only motivated by the love of playing football. I thought it was solely about scoring goals and feeling part of a team. And I thought my perseverance in trying to overcome the injury was based on toughness and strength that I was lucky to have.

But I know now that I didn't play all those games while injured because I was so tough. I played because I didn't have the strength to insist I be rested. I didn't want to be seen to be weak. I didn't want to have that awkward conversation with management, so putting myself and my recovery first seemed less of a priority.

I had bought into the notion of the greater good and I put myself in great harm many times. You get a lot more praise for doing that in football than for choosing to look after your own well-being. It was always the easier option.

I didn't get back playing so I have no way of knowing what experiences I could have had that would have made the pain I currently feel seem worth it. I generally focus on the things I can do

rather than those I can't but the list of what is beyond me is getting longer. Sitting for long periods is uncomfortable and standing for too long is problematic. I probably couldn't run half a kilometre either.

Pain is unavoidable in professional sport. It is not possible to push your body to such extremes without damaging it at some point, but there are times when it's ok to say enough is enough. There's great strength in that too.

Sunday Independent

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