Touching a Nerve: A Look at the Road to Recovery from Sporting Injury

Luca Sdraulig photographed by Dillon Vibes

It’ll come as no surprise to any reader that overcoming injury can be a protracted and often painful process. Investigating the sort of mental fortitude and sheer nerve required to return from significant injury is Olivia Ireland, interviewing the keen AFL player and nearly rehabilitated Luca Sdraulig.

Olivia Ireland: Describe the moment you injured yourself. Did you know straight away?

Luca Sdraulig: When I injured myself, I’d started running a lot; I wanted to regain some fitness after a brief hiatus in high school. Initially, I just pulled up really sore in my left hip, but I didn’t think anything of it. Soon I started getting tightness in the joint on every run, and was limping just minutes into a footy game. It got to the point where any time I did intense exercise, I could barely walk the next day. It wasn’t so much a ‘snap’ moment as a two-week kind of thing.

OI: How physically and mentally challenging has the recovery period been?

LS: I first injured my hip when I was 16. I’m almost 20 now, so it’s been four years and I’m still only just getting back into running. In terms of the physical side of things, it’s pretty straightforward. For me the focus is on stability in my core, getting certain muscles to fire, rebalancing, that sort of thing. It can at times be a bit mundane, because it’s just really boring, slow exercises. The mental side of things is much worse. I mean, I’m pretty young and fit and all the rest, but to go down from playing sport nonstop to not being able to run for four years … it’s just disappointing, a lot of the time. For instance, I wanted to join the army after school, but my injury prevented that. It’s still a goal for me, but mentally it’s harder, because after four years, you’ve lost so much confidence in your own body.

OI: The theme of this issue of Woroni is ‘Nerve’. Do you think the idea of nerve is relevant to you when returning to proper physical exercise?

LS: It’s definitely relevant. Losing that trust in your own body is really scary. It’s not something that should be happening to any teenager. In terms of your nerve, every time you go to do exercise in any capacity – whether it’s going for a run, which is directly going to affect your injury, or even just doing a push-up – you’re always worrying that you might be hurting yourself. You’re thinking, ‘Am I doing damage?’ I was actually misdiagnosed multiple times before I got a proper diagnosis, so I’ve had surgeries, I’ve had physiotherapy, I’ve had endless this-that-and-the-other. It’s only now starting to be the case where they actually know what’s going on. In terms of nerve, it’s all about fighting to regain the confidence to be able to tell yourself, ‘I can do this, I’m not going to get hurt.’ It’s scary stuff!

OI: What have you learned most about yourself during this period of recovery?

LS: As clichéd as it is, I’ve learned that as bad and things might get physically, there’s always a way out. One door might be closing – I can’t play sport for a bit – but that might allow me to do other things. Certainly a lot of the things that I’ve chosen to do now with my life are those that I likely wouldn’t have come across otherwise. I probably wouldn’t be at ANU or doing some of the activities that I now enjoy if I was physically able to play the sports that I focused on in the past. Injury teaches you that disappointment might be hard, but there are ways to recover from it. Good things can come out of bad situations.

OI: What advice would you give to others in either avoiding or actually dealing with injury?

LS: With avoiding injury, I definitely pushed myself too hard too quickly, and that exposed the weakness inherent in the way my muscles had developed. In terms of getting into fitness and exercise, it’s very much a case of going at your own pace – don’t think that you have to be a hero. You’re never going to be Superman.

As for managing injury, it can be anything from a hamstring strain, which you can overcome relatively quickly, to things that end up having lifelong effects. At any rate, I think that it’s important to know that you’re not going through it alone. There’s honestly so many people with so many kinds of hidden injuries – physical, mental, whatever – that they carry with them. It’s a matter of not expecting things to get better overnight – it can take years. I thought my hip would be fixed quickly … I thought it was all going to be within a month … and here I am four years later, and I’m still going. But I’m getting there. You’ve just got to believe in yourself, and have confidence that you can get better, and not stop until you do.