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Sports Crazed: Is pain part of the game?

In the athletic world, it’s widely accepted that playing through physical discomfort is necessary

Posted: August 17, 2014 10:30 p.m.
Updated: August 17, 2014 10:30 p.m.

College of the Canyons athletic trainer Sarah Ehrsam wraps ice onto an athlete's leg after a practice. Ehrsam says she sees athletes play through varying levels of pain, but the level of pain tolerance seems to depend on how competitive the athlete is. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.

Pain is inevitable. This is a concept that athletes across all sports seem to understand.

It’s also generally understood that no great athlete should submit to that pain.

And that doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that athletes tend to have a higher tolerance for such things.

It has a lot more to do with the culture of sports, says Dr. Ashley Samson, an assistant professor in kinesiology and sports psychology consultant at Cal State Northridge.

“When someone plays through an injury or a broken finger or whatever it is, the media makes them a hero, and our culture makes them a hero,” Samson said. “Who do we look up to as little kids? Our heroes.”

But there are times when that kind of win-at-all-costs mentality can take athletes down a dangerous road.

Sarah Ehrsam, an athletic trainer at College of the Canyons, sees this every day in her line of work. And it’s her job to prevent athletes from aggravating injuries or causing long-term physical damage.

“There’s a lot of different variables that will determine whether or not somebody will push through pain,” Ehrsam said. “But generally in an athletic population, yes, most of our athletes will push through some type of pain and discomfort.”

Ultimately, only the athlete truly knows what’s going on in his/her body.

It’s difficult for some to describe why pain often takes a backseat to the thrill of competition.

John Gilbertson, a former distance runner for The Master’s College, says pain is flat-out necessary in his sport.

“Pain is part of life and definitely part of running,” said Gilbertson, who now runs professionally for Mammoth Track Club. “The more pain you can push yourself through, the better you will become. It’s as simple as that.”

In May of 2012, that theory was put to the test when Gilbertson was running in a 5,000-meter prelim race at the 2012 NAIA National Championships. Gilbertson, then a junior at TMC, had trained his entire college career for that race. Nothing was going to stop him.

Two laps into the 12 1/2 lap race, a fellow runner clipped the back of his shoe and left him running on a bare foot the rest of the way.

Within a mile, Gilbertson’s foot started burning.

By the time he reached the final lap, he said it hurt so bad he could hardly put any weight on it.

But Gilbertson finished in fourth place, good enough to qualify for the next day’s final. All it cost him was a few layers of skin on his left foot.

“After the race, I went immediately to the medical team nearby and they told me they had never seen anything like my foot,” he recalls. “I had literally ran the skin off of each of my toes and the ball of my foot one step at a time until there was nothing left.”

These types of stories are present across the sporting landscape, though sometimes the rationale is different.

Former Canyon High football player Ryan Swart dealt with a variety of injuries last season as a senior offensive/defensive lineman.

In a sport like football with its “tough guy” culture, merely admitting you’re in pain can be frowned upon.

“You’ve got to be a little crazy with the game of football,” Swart said. “You do what you do and the best players, they get to play.”

Throughout the year, Swart played through a hyperextended knee and elbow as well as a broken finger.

“I told myself I can’t just let these little injuries determine my high school career, especially with the guys that were next to me,” he said.

That fits into another one of the sport ethic norms, which says that an athlete will play through pain to prove to teammates and coaches that they will not succumb to pressure.

From her own observations, Ehrsam also pointed out that there seems to be a correlation between an athlete’s competitive drive and their willingness to set aside agony.

“Your competitive athletes who, this is what they love — this is what they want to do — they’re hoping to get a scholarship, maybe they’re hoping to play professionally one day. Those are typically your athletes that will push through pain and will play through pain, and possibly won’t tell you about it,” Ehrsam said.

And while Ehrsam deals with the physical side of things, it’s people like Dr. Samson who often have to make athletes realize it’s not always worth risking your body for sports.

Pain may be inevitable, but so are the consequences.


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