When Your Young Athlete is Sidelined

Where his love of all things sports began - Saturday mornings on the soccer field.
Where his love of all things sports began – Saturday mornings on the soccer field.

Every week you see the headlines – a long list of college and pro athletes hurt in the previous night’s game. With top-level physicians and therapists on their side, I usually figure that their recovery will be swift and easy and never imagine the worried mama googling “torn meniscus” or “rotator cuff” from home, possibly hundreds of miles away.

But for the last five weeks, I’ve been that mama. Learning more about knees and ACLs and MRIs than I ever wanted to know.

My son is almost fourteen, in his last year of middle school. He has been an athlete for as long as I can remember, filling up our weekends and weeknights of the last ten years with practices and games for whichever sport is in season. He plays football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and soccer in the spring.

I was not/am not an athlete. In any way, shape, or form.

In fact, if there’s a term for the opposite of athlete, I would claim it. I kept myself out of harm’s way as much as possible throughout my childhood, finding excuses to sit out of P.E. and never having any desire to participate in anything requiring a uniform.

But I’m unbelievably competitive. To a fault. So when my son started playing sports, I realized that I’d finally found my place – in the bleachers cheering him on. While the hours of chauffeuring them to practices, working concession stands, and washing their (oh so dirty) uniforms are long, the payoff comes at game time. When he was three years old in Upward Soccer, barely knowing which side of the field to run toward, I wouldn’t have believed what an integral part of our family that sports would become a decade later.

In Middle School, everything changes.

How he left the field on that night five weeks ago - never how you want to see your boy who's always running.
How he left the field on that night five weeks ago – his mama’s heart in her throat.

Sports are no longer something extra; they’re now a part of school. They wear ties to school on game days. They have dinner with their team, travel to games on the bus together, and practice for months leading up to their season. They train in weight rooms and have locker room conversations with their coaches and teammates that we aren’t part of. Especially with football, which begins with spring practice in April and ends with an October championship, the amount of time they spend together gives “family time” a new meaning. His coaches and teammates are family. And their families become part of ours.

You know when you put your child on a sports team that injuries are a possibility. The concussion forms and physical exam forms and liability waivers we sign at the start of each season make that very clear. But when you have a kid who loves the game – thrives in it – you pray for a safe season and believe they will have one. It’s really the only way I can keep my sanity and enjoy watching him play without obsessing that the 300-pound guy across from him woke up this morning with the goal of flattening my precious boy.

But back to the googling mom – that’s who I became on the night of our first football game of the season, just five weeks ago. A play ended with a tackle and in the middle of my whooping and hollering I saw that a player was down on the field, our coach running towards him. And then realized that was my player. I learned during his first football game at eight years old that Mama running onto the field is not an option (that lesson was “taught” to me by my husband and a friend both grabbing the back of my shirt as I tried to take off down the bleachers when he had the wind knocked out of him, and I got it… much as I still hate that alleged rule).

This year’s injury was more serious… a popping sound in his knee as he made that tackle would be diagnosed the next day as a torn ACL and meniscus. Requiring surgery pretty quickly. Crutches for several weeks, physical therapy for six months, and a brace for a heck of a long undetermined amount of time. And although I already knew it, I had to hear it from his doctor’s mouth: “His season is over.”

In the grander scheme of things, I get it – I really do. There are terrible things happening around the world and right here in our backyard that make this look like a walk in the park. But for a 13 year old boy, those words from his doctor must feel like the end of the world. I spent a couple of days worried sick for him, googling every possible scenario, not sleeping, crying to my husband about the unfairness of it all… It’s his eighth grade year, his year, what is he going to do with his time now? What will he do without being part of this team? And selfishly, I was upset for us because we love watching him play. It’s a big part of our family routine in the fall! Going to the games, sitting with our friends, waiting on him by the locker room after each game – it’s our thing, and what were we going to do without it?

How he's spent his 2015 season - on the sidelines. Photo courtesy of Marena Bradley.
How he’s spent his 2015 season – on the sidelines. Photo courtesy of Marena Bradley.

What I was taught, rather quickly, is to follow his lead. When I asked him if he still wanted to go to practice, he gave me one of his 13-year-old-boy looks and said, “Why wouldn’t I?” As a non-athlete, I didn’t have an answer. But he told me, quite simply: “I’m part of the team.”

Oh, my heart.

By following his lead and trying my darnedest to have a similar attitude, I learned that kids bounce back (physically and emotionally) a lot quicker than sappy moms. I learned that my selfish fear of not seeing him play all year was completely lost on him. My competitive nature wants to see him play big, win big, live fully in every moment that he has on the field. His easygoing nature believes that winning is great but the time he spends with his friends off the field is what it’s all about. What matters to him is being with his team, five days a week like he always has. And he can still do that.

And we can still cheer from the stands every week, like we always have. After all, his teammates are part of our family, too.


  1. If you live in knoxville, definitely find the athletic trainer who works at the high school he will go to next year. We work at all the knox county schools (through the local ortho clinic) and specialize in returning athletes to sports. There is a huge mental aspect to sports injuries and return to play. You touch a bit on how sports has become his identity. Now he will have to find himself in the mean time until that knee heals. It’s so much more complicated than just rebuilding a ligament and letting tissues heal.

    • Yes, I completely agree! Our school is K-12 so he’s been working with our trainer and has a fabulous group of PT’s that he’ll soon start seeing three times a week. It’s a long road to recovery but working with a great group of people already makes it seem much easier.

  2. Just found your article. I’m a mom of a permanently sidelined athlete. Heart condition diagnosis at age 12 for my baskbetball playing son. Your article resonances with me. How’s your son now? Was he able to return to sports?


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