ACL Guide: “You’re Cleared to Play”

When your surgeon says, “you’re cleared to play,” a giant wave of excitement and fear washes over you. After an ACL reconstruction surgery, 6-9 months of physical therapy, you are finally ready for action. Yet, this is just the beginning of the next chapter in your recovery.

In the next chapter, we encourage you to maintain a quiet confidence by celebrating your progress, to persist when you don’t feel like you can anymore, and to know that you are not alone. With a series of ACL tears behind her, Caitlin Lewis, former D1 soccer player, shares her triumphs and struggles of returning to play in her piece, The Return.

A flood of emotions washed over me as I stepped out on that familiar field. I sported new scars, a shiny, black knee brace, and a bright yellow penny so my teammates knew not to tackle me, but otherwise everything felt just like it always had, it felt like home. After the heartbreak of tearing my ACL, an agonizing six months of rehab, and endless hours watching from the sidelines, I was finally cleared to play again. This was the moment I’d been waiting for, the moment I’d been working for, the moment I had pictured in my head hundreds of times just to get me through the pain. This would be the moment that would make it all worth it. Except the reality of the moment was much different than I dreamed of it being. I stepped with excitement onto the field only to find that I was scared and hesitant, my touch was off, I was slow and out of breath, and all of my teammates were suddenly a hundred times better than me. I walked off the field that day with tears in my eyes and my head hung low, surrounded by the overwhelming fear that I would never again be the player I once was.

The struggles and disappointments I faced upon returning to play after my first ACL surgery left me feeling isolated and lonely. I later realized, however, that many other girls returning from ACL tears faced the same battles when they returned to the field for the first time. Everyone told me about the joy and excitement of being cleared to play, how it would all be worth it when my knee was strong enough to take the field again, but nobody warned me about the struggles I would face after the initial excitement faded. I want to be that message and support for other girls, because taking the field again is exciting, but it won’t be easy. I hope that you celebrate your heart out when you’re cleared to play because getting cleared is a huge milestone, but I also want you to know that the journey is far from over. It will be hard, it will be painful, it will take time and work and tears, but you will get there and you will be better because of it.

The best advice I can give to those returning to play from an ACL tear is to embrace the player you’ve become. Don’t compare yourself to your teammates or to the player you used to be, focus only on who you are now. You won’t be one hundred percent the first time you step back out on the field. It will take time and many hours of practice, but eventually your skills, fitness, and confidence will return. I encourage you to focus on how far you’ve come rather than how far you have left to go. Celebrate the little victories, like your first tackle, and work on improving one aspect of your game at a time. It’s easy to get caught up in all the ways your injury has hurt your game and changed you as a player, but dwelling on these negative thoughts and comparisons won’t help you get back to the player you want to be. You have to embrace the changes brought about by your injury, because you are different now. You may not be as fast or agile or aggressive as you used to be, but if you look for them I bet you’ll find that there are countless little ways that this injury has changed you for the better. I felt that I eventually came back a better player after my first surgery, simply because my injury made me work harder and love the game that much more. If you’re an athlete in the thick of this painful struggle, keep your head up, fellow warrior, and remember that you are incredibly strong and capable. Never forget that we have conquered one of the toughest battles athletes can face, and we have the scars to prove it.

We sincerely wish you the very best in your next chapter. Don’t hesitate to reach out, we will be here for you every step of the way. You got this.

From ACL Warriors to another,

~Bianca and Caitlin

P.S. If you liked this, read Caitlin’s piece: The Final Whistle

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