Aaron Ramsey’s return to form this season has been remarkable. Once reckoned as, arguably, one of the next greats of the footballing world, it is no coincidence that since his horrific leg break against Stoke City in 2010 he has never lived up to the promise he showed then. However, the start of the 2013/14 season has brought a new lease of life for the Welshman, with him scoring 4 goals so far in the league alone. My question is then; how much do injuries affect professional sportsmen and women?
There are some out there who don’t believe that injuries can affect the performance of a player. These are people who believe in trait perspectives, where you are naturally born to be good at certain things and that nothing will get in your way. So, according to this, Ramsey should have found himself playing the football he was before, yet it was clear to all that he wasn’t. This may seem very naive and narrow-minded but it was how people thought not so long ago. Fortunately the development of the understanding of psychology, especially in sport, means that very few now accept this theory and give credence to the idea that strength of mind is just as important as physical capabilities in not just the sporting world but everything in general.
Ramsey’s break was a truly horrific sight – leg breaks in sport are often much more dramatic because they often happen under immense pressure from an external force. When someone falls and breaks their leg in the street it is often quite a subtle break but there have been many cases of footballers, rugby players, American footballers, netballers, cricketers etc. sustaining severe breaks where you can physically see the deformation of the leg. Of course it’s not just legs that break but these are the ones that seem to cause most interest among the general public, largely because of their shocking nature. Ramsey’s break was no exception – his lower leg was pretty much hanging at a 90 degree angle! But it’s often not the injury itself that can affect the performer but the mental damage caused by it. However, is it actually witnessing the damage that causes a loss of confidence and, as a result, performance or is it down to the time spent out of the game?
I know from personal experience that even the thought of something missing from your body or an item not being in the right place can really affect you mentally. When I was 11 I (apparently) tore a chunk of flesh out of my abdominal region after diving to not be run out in a cricket game. All I could think of when I did it was not looking at what I had done to myself – even though I wasn’t old enough to even know the word psychology I instinctively knew that if I saw what I had done to myself I would have been scarred in more than one way. I know not everyone will react like this but I’m pretty certain that when you cut yourself or break a limb (not that I wish it on anyone!) you will automatically try and avoid looking at it. Seeing a part of your body not where it should be (or not there at all) is, I think, highly traumatic and can cause you to do anything to avoid repeating the event. So, in Ramsey’s case, if he’d seen his broken leg he may have been apprehensive about making a tackle or even playing football again because of what he’d seen happen to him last time. However, I don’t think this is the main cause of the psychological suffering.
How many of you reading this have found yourself avoiding a sport or being very tentative on your return after a serious injury? Although you may not admit to it I’m sure quite a few of you will; I certainly have. Since tearing my medial collateral ligament three years ago whilst playing tennis I have not revisited the sport and, when I have had to do other activities on similar courts, I have been much more careful than I would be on other surfaces. After receiving a serious injury everyone is going to be apprehensive on their return, although not necessarily because of the fear of a recurrence. Although I am not qualified to say so and don’t know him at all personally, I believe quite strongly that Ramsey’s lack of performance over the last couple of years has come around as a result of a lack of confidence caused by that leg break. You could see when watching him play that he didn’t enjoy being on the ball as much as before and that he didn’t even attempt to make the runs forward he used to back when he was a teenager. His natural confidence had been destroyed by that one moment and it has taken until now for the to come back. What caused that to come back I cannot possibly claim to know but something has happened for the Welshman that has caused this sudden turnaround.
Of course, not everyone will be affected by injury and some will even thrive as a result. Take Graham Onions for instance – he had a fantastic couple of years in 2009 and 2010, finding himself playing quite often for England and picking up lots of wickets. However, a serious back injury meant he was forced out of the Ashes side that won in Australia over the winter of 2010/11 as well as most of the 2011 season and, as a result, his place in the England pecking order dropped quite a bit. Did he let that affect him? Not at all – in fact I think he’s become a better player as a result. He picked up over County Championship 50 wickets in 2012 and 70 in 2013 at an average of 18.46. He was also part of the Durham side that won the title this year, something they couldn’t have done without him. And yet he still can’t get picked for England?!
It could be argued that Onions is naturally mentally stronger than Ramsey but I don’t think you can say that. In my opinion, no-one is born naturally stronger than anyone else, it is something that develops as a result of your environment. I think Onions had a greater drive than Ramsey to come back as soon as possible due to his circumstances. Although he was playing for his country, his spot in the side was far from guaranteed and, with some fantastic young fast-bowling talent being developed in this country, he knew his place was under serious threat, a fear which has come true. Ramsey, though, was already a regular in both the Arsenal and Wales teams with very little new talent appearing in both sides for various reasons. Onions situation meant that he had greater need to rediscover his form very quickly whilst Ramsey didn’t have the same incentive.
Am I saying, then, that people don’t perform as well after injuries compared to before just because of the mental trauma? No I’m not – the injuries themselves can have just as great, if not bigger, impact. Take Simon Jones for instance – a member of the 2005 Ashes winning side, the Welsh wonder was a great fast bowler for both county and country. Since aggravating a previous knee injury in that series, though, he has had eight injury-filled years. His body has no longer been able to cope with the demands of bowling 90mph and, as a result, he is a shadow of the player he once used to be, leading to his retirement last month. The former West Ham footballer Dean Ashton is another prime example – he broke his ankle in 2006 and never played again because the fusion of the ankle as it healed meant he couldn’t run any longer. The physical impact of an injury is a big factor as to whether sportsmen and women will recover their form but I also believe that if they recover fully the mental scars can still significantly hinder them.