Written by Bailee Murray
As a coach in the private sector and in the collegiate sphere, I often hear statements like: “I used to be able to squat ___,” “I used to go on ___ mile runs,” “I used to weigh ___ pounds.” These statements are then followed by: “and now I can only do ___.”
I understand these sentiments as a former collegiate athlete currently coming back from an ACL and double meniscus surgery. While it can be helpful to compare ourselves to our past selves to understand our capabilities and track progress, constantly comparing ourselves to our best or peak self can lead to self-shame and deprive us of celebrating our victories.
Focus on the small wins
Right before I underwent my knee surgery, a trainer told me the key to a successful return to sport is to focus on the small wins. “Celebrate that you used to be on crutches and now you can walk. Celebrate the extra 10 degrees of knee flexion you had this week compared to last week. Those small wins are everything and keep you working towards something with a positive attitude.”
At the time, I didn’t fully understand what she meant, but once I started rehab this mentality became really important. Relearning how to walk, struggling to do body weight step-ups and seeing the atrophy in my quad was really discouraging to me when I remembered how I used to run frequently, easily do step-ups with 45s and had equally strong legs. When I was cleared to do something new, I was not encouraged because I wasn’t as good as I was before and it was going to be a long time before I ever would be. With this mindset, every setback in my rehab was even more disheartening and led to me putting extra pressure on myself.
Luckily, my physical therapist encouraged me to be optimistic and proud of my body throughout this process. This reminded me of the “small wins mentality” the trainer had told me about pre-operation, which resonated with me much more than before.
I reminding myself constantly of this “small wins mentality” and chose to celebrate every new thing I had earned by pushing myself in rehab. I became excited and grateful every time I cleared a new milestone, now matter how small, and excited to work towards something new by undergoing a very painful, difficult rehab process. I am currently only 4 months out of a year-long rehab process, and I may never return to some of the activities I used to do before the surgery. But this mentality has created a sense of gratitude for my body and the work I am putting in, and has kept me motivated and positive in the process.
This mindset does not just apply to returning to sport and activity after injury. Everyone’s body changes with time, and our “peak” selves are not always accessible anymore. Returning to the gym after vacation makes a difference. Returning to the gym after many years of focusing on your job or family makes a difference. It is important to embark on a new goal or start exercising regularly again while comparing yourself only with where your body is now.
That is why setting measurable, manageable and trackable goals comes in handy. Celebrating that you couldn’t do a single push-up two months ago, but now you can do one is worth celebrating no matter how many push-ups you could do 10 years ago. Celebrating that you aren’t winded going up a flight of stairs after training consistently for a few weeks is worth celebrating no matter how many miles you used to run regularly. Choose to be proud of yourself for the work you’re putting in and celebrate the small wins, because you earned them.