The Beauty in Not Having Control: What I Learned As An Injured Freshman

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I didn’t set foot on the field during my first season on the WashU Women’s Soccer team. When I arrived on campus in the fall, I was three months removed from an ACL reconstruction on my left knee. Just a couple weeks before the first day of preseason, I ran for the first time. I wasn’t cleared to move in any direction other than a straight line. I still iced my knee multiple times a day. I certainly was not going to be lacing up my cleats any time soon. 

Despite this, I arrived ready for the semester. Through summer camp and recruiting visits, I had already met most of my fellow incoming class and was excited to officially be teammates. My rehab was progressing as expected and I felt strong from the exercises I diligently performed. Plus, I was finally in college! I couldn’t wait to meet my roommate, start classes, and begin the next four years.

But spending a summer in the physical therapist’s office and being away from the field was tough to say the least. It was the first time I experienced the agony of having to watch others play the game I was unable to. I had never suffered a serious injury before, so I was utterly depressed by my existence as a permanent spectator. I could barely help set up cones for drills or carry equipment, I didn’t travel to any of the away games, and I spent time in the training room while others were going to breakfast together after morning practice. 

Throughout the season, my attitude devolved from dejection to resent, and from resent to contempt. My initial commitment to staying focused during practice quickly faded and was replaced with bitter thoughts of other things that I could be doing with my time. Why did I have to be at practice when I had a physics exam that I could be studying for instead? Soon, practice and games became a chore to attend. I suffered through hours of sitting, watching, and waiting to finally head back to the locker room so I could complete my rehab exercises, ice, and leave. 

Eventually, fall season ended. Back home for winter break, I remember feeling so disappointed with my first semester of college. What I expected to be a fun, inspiring few months turned out to be a lonely time where I felt artificially part of a team – my name was on the roster, but I hadn’t contributed anything that would allow me to call myself a ‘teammate’. 

While I would have gladly welcomed it, there was no magic epiphany or illuminating words of guidance that suddenly caused me to flip a switch. Over the course of the spring semester, I was fully cleared to play, I got my touch back on the ball, I joined and quit the track team, and I became a happy teammate.

Although certainly a dramatic example, my experience as an injured freshman helps highlight a distinction that is important both in sports and the working world – what we have control over versus what we don’t. I believe that too often we unfairly let that which is outside our realm of control dictate our actions and define our experiences. I also believe that sport has the powerful ability to teach us differently. Whether you suffer a season-ending injury, or the referee makes an unfair call, there will always be a factor in the game that we can’t control. But what is always within our control is how we respond. 

Now, as a Business Analyst for McKinsey & Company, the factors of the game look a little different. As much as I want to be, I’ll never be in control of whether my flight gets delayed. I can’t help it if my computer crashes, or if the project I’m passionate about isn’t adding any more members. But I choose where I spend my energy and time. Do I worry about arriving late and missing a meeting, or do I proactively reschedule and spend my new-found time getting work done while I wait for my flight? Do I suffer through an hour of trouble shooting in Excel, or do I ask a teammate if she knows a more efficient way to execute the analysis?

Though I thankfully no longer deal with referees who seemed to be paid by the other team, the ability to categorize what is inside and outside my control saves me from wasting time on things I can’t change and allows me to solve problems more quickly. At the very least, I can choose to show up with a positive attitude and I can choose to ask for help when I need it. Now, I try to spend a little less energy agonizing over the flight delay and a little more energy politely asking the Delta representative if there’s a different flight that I can take home.