The SAMHI Champion Series features the stories and experiences of Canadian student-athletes. This is a guest post from former student-athlete and lead assistant coach for Guelph Women’s Basketball, Ashley MacSporran. Ashley also has her M.A. in Sport Science and Coaching Education. Thank you for sharing your story with us.
The first weekend in May, a women’s Masters Basketball tournament was held in Richmond Hill, ON, for alumni to get together, play basketball and compete. Some of my old teammates put a team in and I thought I would be able to go watch some games. In the end, I passed on the trip, because after eight long years I was still unable to handle the fact that my teammates can play the game we love… and I can’t. I have come a long way, but the pain of losing my career to injury will never truly go away. This is my story: a young woman who only knew herself as a basketball player, lost her career to a knee injury, and found her calling, passion and purpose in life as a basketball coach.
Growing up in Waterloo, ON, playing basketball and winning was all I knew and who I was. Then in grade nine playoffs, I blew my ACL. In 1998, it was unheard of for a 14 year-old girl to have this injury. I was a tough kid and battled back to health, but the resentment I had for others festered. I was frustrated, hate built inside me and as a young teenager, I had to learn how quickly we can fall into dark places. My sport was my identity, and then it was taken from me. It’s a lot for a young person to take on. It was a difficult road, but it made me the tough, “don’t take crap from anyone”, player I became. Today, I am thankful for it. However, the negative side to this was that I was determined to never lose a minute of game time again. Through all my injuries, I pretended I was ok, all the while dying a little inside because my game suffered, which meant my identity suffered, so I suffered.
I chose Laurentian University because they had a history of winning. I only knew winning and I did not lose well. Who ever does really? I needed days to deal with a loss when it would come, blame myself, watch film over and over, trying to learn how to be better.
I had a rough rookie year. Talk about reality check for a confident basketball player walking into something where I wasn’t one of the best. It was a typical rookie season, ups and downs and a bout with mono. I learned so much sitting on the bench with that team. I learned about the game, but I learned so much more about people through watching my teammates: who needed comforting when coming off the floor, who needed a kick in the butt. I was the person to deliver that. It was an easy role for me and that was the first time I ever thought, “I should be a coach.”
Near the end of September of my 3rd year, I had my heart broken. This was the first time it had happened to me, and I was a little lost as a result. When something impacts your life in any way, the other parts become a bigger focus, and so I turned even more to basketball. It was always there, it wouldn’t leave me. I am sure many athletes feel this way too.
Two weeks later, the team travelled to Quebec for pre-season tournament. By the third game my left knee had a pain in it that I hadn’t had since my first ACL injury, but I didn’t tell anyone. Our season started at York University the next week. I was running down the court, went to catch the ball and power stop – and that was it. My knee buckled and down I went. It didn’t feel like my ACL but I knew I had done big damage, you just know these things.
Physios and doctors said it was patella issues and braced me up. Of course, I urged them on. I wasn’t about to lose basketball again because I had no idea who I was without the game. My whole life was Laurentian basketball and I wouldn’t have it any other way. So, I did what plenty of athletes do: sucked it up, pushed through the pain and played. I was in agony daily, physically and mentally, but pushed out the dark thoughts and fears, because that was easier than coming to terms with them.
February 18th, 2006
I remember this day almost every day of my life now. It was the last day I stepped on the court in a jersey with a team. As the clock ticked down, we were losing to Ottawa in playoffs, and I knew my career was over. My knee was so bad I could hardly walk up the stairs at this point. Tears ran down my face during that last minute. I finally had no control over what was to come.
Between June 2006 and December 2013, I underwent eight surgeries. My tibia and femur were both cut in half, bone added and re-aligned, meniscus transplant, hardware removals and manipulation surgeries. The pain I had experienced with that first injury was nothing compared to the pain I was now experiencing. My career was over, and my life was now about managing that pain.
A lurking darkness took hold of me. Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t get out of it. I was lost. I had lost who I was and all I wanted to be. I saw a psychologist when I moved home in the summer 2006. I couldn’t get out of this black hole I was in. It was suffocating. I wish I hadn’t disregarded these feelings for so long. It has been a battle recovering because I live with regret on a daily basis. I couldn’t understand how it got so bad. I wondered if anyone had told me to stop, could they have stopped me? Why didn’t anyone think to tell me to stop? How did no one know how much pain I was in? Well, it is quite clear now how good I had become at masking my feelings. I was smiling and going about my days as if nothing was wrong. This is what people with depression do well: put on a great show and suffer alone.
With my mother’s suggestion, I started coaching a local summer team. The girls were 14 years old at the time, raw, passionate, and talented. They became my therapy. Investing my time and knowledge into them gave me something I had never experienced and wasn’t prepared for. Watching them excel because I taught them something new, watching them learn a new play, a new way to do things – I felt a love I did not know was possible. I actually found more joy in seeing these young girls excel than I did in excelling myself as a player. I was shocked I felt this way, because my drive had always come from me playing the game.
I healed because of that first team. I was blessed that my first experience coaching was with these amazing young women – all of whom still keep in touch with me today. It is humbling to have a lasting impact on them. That is why I coach.
After I graduated from Laurentian, I found an amazing Masters program at Ohio University and got my Masters in Sports Science and Coaching Education (09-11). I think this profession does not adequately address the psychological well being of our athletes. A stigma surrounds mental illness that causes it to be hushed up and hidden away in the sports world. As coaches, our impact on a player can extend far beyond the game. They are not just athletes, they are human beings first and foremost; everyone is dealing with something. We have the power as coaches to shape young men and women and to control their playing experience in a positive way.
My coaching philosophy is to approach players as people first, before treating them as basketball players. It doesn’t mean I am included in all aspects of their lives, but I make an effort to know each player. That way, I can tell when something is off. Most of the time it isn’t basketball-related, so in order to have a balanced coaching relationship with a player, I have to know who they are when they step off the court. By creating an environment where a player is comfortable communicating anything, coaches can avoid having players hide things until it’s too late to help.
I feel that if an athlete is comfortable enough to open up to me, the respect and confidence we have in each other translates onto the court. I pride myself in being this type of coach. My experience as a player has made me this way. In Canada, we don’t always have the luxury of a boatload of people working for an athletics program, so we need to take it upon ourselves as coaches to bridge this gap and be a link between athletes and the assistance they need.
My goal is to make sure that anyone who plays for me never experiences the dark places I have. Whether due to injury, personal problems or school, when my athletes tell the stories of their own athletic careers, I want to be part of the reason that story is one of joy, and not of pain. Let us remember, coaches: just because there isn’t a visual wound, does not mean that someone is not hurting.
I am a strong supporter of SAMHI. I hope the efforts of the courageous young student athletes in this program can help others who suffer from mental illness. I think of the many athletes who have suffered and those stories that cannot be changed, but there are many who are still in the game and can be assisted in their journey.