GREENSBORO, N.C. – “No, I’m good coach.”
I’m not sure how many times I have heard, said or read those words exchanged between players and coaches. Players who want to push themselves harder than their bodies can handle are found in every kind of sport. Martial artists who think they can keep fighting, football players who have taken a helmet to the head and rugby players who have more bruises than freckles. I was in the last category. I remember in my freshman year, when I played club rugby we had just played East Carolina, and I had rolled my ankle on the lumpy rec field.
The following week, we had a game against UNC Charlotte. My ankle was the size of a golf ball, and naturally I had neglected to go to the student health center and had instead referred to Dr. Aspirin. I went to support my teammates, and saw that there were 14 players on the field. This was a game of 15s. I asked my girlfriend to go back to my dorm room to get my things so I could play. My coach looked at me and said ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea’. I responded with: “No, I’m good coach.”
We need to talk about that phrase. It has a whirlwind of context around it, and far-reaching consequences. When I think about sports, I think about how far parents are willing to push their own children. I think about all the movies that glorify people for pushing through inhumane boundaries with absolutely no negative consequences. No obvious deterioration in their bodies. But our bodies do deteriorate. We are not unbreakable.
I liken the sports culture here to my time in the RAF, when I was up in the Pentland Hills with the British Army. It was January, and the wind would cut through your clothes and your soul. The temperature was, at the most, -5 degrees Celsius. It was a week of being run up hills, being screamed at, and the occasional cup of tea. But what stuck out to me, and what I liken most to the US sports culture, was when I was planking with full kit on. That means webbing (stuff you keep ammo, water etc in), Bergen (big backpack), helmet, rifle and my tunic (jacket). Everything in me was screaming, but the NCO who organized this lovely exercise was pacing up and down the line. He looked at me, crouched down and said to me, “Burns, pain is just weakness leaving the body.” I’ve told myself that all the time in order to justify training harder than is necessary.
But pain is not weakness leaving the body. Pain is like the biological ‘check engine’ sign. Pushing through shin splints does not make you tougher, it makes them worse. Running until you pass out isn’t healthy. Going hard at the gym seven days a week isn’t healthy either. Compete, but don’t do it at the expense of your health.
Look after yourselves. Look after one another.