Independence's Heather Mitts and Karina LeBlanc Discuss Injury Comebacks

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Independence's Heather Mitts and Karina LeBlanc Discuss Injury Comebacks
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Injuries are a part of sports and soccer is no different. Some injuries happen at the worst possible moment—right before an important tryout or before a championship game. Or even worse, right before soccer's biggest event—the World Cup.

Players work their whole lives to make it to that level and for the opportunity to become champions. To have that opportunity taken away is most definitely a hard pill to swallow.

It’s always hard for players to watch their teams play without them. To be forced to watch their teams play in the World Cup and come this close to playing makes it that much harder.

Some of WPS's best have suffered potentially devastating injuries. They've all made it back (or are on their way back) and are sharing their comeback stories in this first installment of Tips from the Pros—Injuries and Recoveries.  

Philadelphia Independence defender Heather Mitts saw her World Cup dreams come to a halt for a second time in May of 2007. With only four months until the World Cup, Mitts collided with Canada’s Christine Sinclair as she stepped in to block a ball being played into the attacking third.

In blocking the shot, Mitts landed with too much force on her left leg and suffered a left ACL tear.

For Mitts, it was the second time an injury had prevented her from playing in a World Cup. She missed the 2003 World Cup after suffering a broken leg three months before the United States’ opening match.

"I hadn’t played in one and I had worked really hard to get in the starting lineup so it was pretty devastating,”  Mitts said of losing out on her chance of playing in the tournament.  

“But at the same time, there’s nothing I could do about it, so it is what it is and it’s just trying to get back on the horse as fast as I can and to look forward to the next positive thing, which was hopefully making the Olympics.”

Mitts went on to make the 2008 Olympic team, winning a gold medal.

Her Independence teammate, Karina LeBlanc, has also had her fair share of injuries. LeBlanc missed the 2004 Olympics because of a torn PCL in her knee sustained prior to the Olympic Games.

She then saw her World Cup dreams fade away after suffering a shoulder injury in the last practice before the tournament.

Instead of having months to come to terms with the reality that she wouldn’t be able to compete for her country, LeBlanc had less than a week to cope with the thought. The Canadian keeper’s role changed from being in the starting lineup to supporting her team from the bench after she tore her AC ligament in her shoulder.

She still travelled to China with the hopes of being able to play at least one game in soccer’s biggest event. 

“Then preparing for [the World Cup] in soccer it’s the biggest event you go all out, and you sit back and go 'what if,' but a part of it is OK because you’re still at the event and it’s almost like your role changes so quickly. Like my role switched from playing to supporting,” LeBlanc said, looking back on the experience.

“When you’re in the moment and you get there and you hear the national anthems being played, you get into that whole atmosphere of the World Cup. My role has changed, but for me I’m still blessed to have been there. Part of you was eaten up and part of you, you were just so pumped to be there.”

Coming Back

Part of the battle in coming back from any injury is staying motivated and positive. Rehab isn’t going to be fun or pleasant, it’s going to be hard work. Despite their injuries and how horrible the timing, Mitts and LeBlanc took a similar approach.

It was about the process of coming back and making the next team or simply being on the field.

“I just basically treated every day at rehab like it was going to practice, like it was my job,” Mitts said. “I knew I had to show up with a positive attitude and be ready to go in there and work. There was going to be some pain and hard times but in the end, it was going to give me the best chance of making the Olympics. You have to put in the hard work in order to see the end result, so that was kind of how I thought about things every day.”

LeBlanc echoed Mitts’ sentiments:

“It was almost like, you know, you’re doing your rehab and you’re doing the little things and understanding that, you know what? This is all part of the process. You just want to be back playing and I think that’s the biggest motivation—is to be back on that field, is to be back being able to play the sport you love again, and to be able to be in that environment again. I think through all the injuries that I’ve had—and I’ve had several—that’s the main thing that keeps you going because you just hate being away from it.”

That motivation has allowed both players to fight their way back onto their respective national teams as well as lead the Philadelphia Independence to sole possession of second place in the WPS.

 

Overcoming Challenges

Coming back from an injury is a big challenge both physically and mentally. Some athletes say that mentally coming back from injury is the bigger challenge. There will always be the question of whether you’ll be the same player that you were before the injury.

“I think once you’re back physically, that’s only half the battle because once you’re back you’re like, ‘ok’,” said Karina LeBlanc. “Part of you wishes you could just be back where you were before you left; because for me, I left at the point when I was playing great soccer. Everything was going great, but you come back and things weren’t as sharp as they were. You want to do everything right away and you can’t.”

For others, physically coming back from the injury is the more daunting task. The rehabilitation is a long process after a serious injury. Your body can only recover so quickly and you have to let it heal, which sometimes means having to slow down despite how well things may be going.

“I would say physically because my body was recovering very quickly, but with an ACL, you have to give it time to heal. Even when I felt like I was ready to do things I wasn’t given permission to. So that was kind of hard, being able to pull back on the reins a little bit and just be smart about it,” Heather Mitts added.

“I didn’t want to have any setbacks, and that was my biggest concern, was having a setback. Just being smart and listening to your body [was important]. You learn a lot when you go through something as traumatic as an ACL.”

Patience.

It is one of the biggest challenges any athlete faces when coming back from injury. Coming back too soon runs the risk of getting hurt again, but athletes don't want to sit out and have to watch their teams compete without them.

As an athlete, it is one of the hardest things to have to do—to pull back when you are so used to pushing yourself ahead. There’s a certain balance athletes must find between steam-rolling ahead and being overly cautious.

“That’s the trick of it all. You have to have a good support system so that they can keep you grounded. The medical staff is important in it as a support system to just be like ‘take it slowly’. Rome wasn’t built in a day,” LeBlanc explained, chuckling a bit.

“It’s just about taking it slowly and keeping things in perspective and understanding that you won’t be able to get back to where you were [right away] but you just gotta take it day by day and set goals. Set goals that are realistic.”

And as for their advice for athletes who are coming back from a serious injury, especially one with such awful timing?

“I would just say, everything happens for a reason and find something positive to focus on. Set your next goal and works toward that and do everything possible to just get back on the field," Mitts said.

"At the same time, you do have some time away from soccer, so maybe go do some other things that you haven’t had a chance to do because you’re so preoccupied. Take your mind away from it so that when you show up every single day, you’re ready to put in the work and it’s not such a tedious process.”

LeBlanc added, “I think one thing is to support yourself with a good support system. People who believe in you because there’s going to be rough days and there’s going to be days where you doubt yourself and you doubt whether you’re going to be the player you were before you were injured."

"You need these people around you to support you and to allow you to think positively and be optimistic and believe that because of this, you’re going to be better. I think that every obstacle that I’ve faced in my life has been an opportunity for me to learn and for me to get better."

"I think that it’s something you learn physically, tactically, mentally—there’s always an opportunity to learn. I mean, when I was out I just watched more soccer. So I think I became a better player tactically because of it. There’s always something you can do to better your game. If you have the right people around you and you have the right mindset, you’ll be fine.” 

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