6 Rules for Dealing with Injury, Illness, and Aging as an Athlete

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In the winter of 2022, I had just started working on my new book. The idea for it began with a small scribble: “What does it mean to stay strong and endure when everything is always changing, including us?” My goal was to research, report, and wrestle with this question, hopefully coming up with an answer.

In the early stages of that wrestling, on a chilly morning that February, I awoke to a phone full of text messages from colleagues and friends: Have you seen the Nils van der Poel document?

Shortly after winning two gold medals and posting a world record at the winter Olympics in Beijing, the 25-year-old Swedish speed skater Nils van der Poel published a 62-page PDF entitled “How to Skate a 10K… and Also Half a 10K,” referring to the two events he had just won.

I was curious about why so many people were texting me. I am not a speed skater, and I don’t follow the sport closely. But within a few minutes of downloading the PDF, my question was answered. The first page of this so-called “training” document was entirely blank except for a single quote, from the psychologist Carl Jung: “It seems that all things true change and only that which changes remains true.”

Yes, the PDF contained specific workouts and training protocols, but it also contained a meditation on the pursuit, meaning, and value of excellence—trial, tribulations, and ongoing change included. And that, dear readers, is the content I am here for.

Van der Poel repeatedly mentioned how he actively worked to develop his identity beyond just speed skating. He had other hobbies. He took weekends completely off to hang out with friends, even if that meant eating pizza and drinking beer, which is essentially blasphemy for an Olympic-level athlete.

But rather than curtailing his performance on the ice, these other activities propelled him forward. “Creating meaning and value in life outside of the speed skating oval helped me get through tough training periods,” he wrote. “I knew who I was and I was not just a speed skater.” Diversifying the sources of meaning in his life, he continues, helped van der Poel “face the horrific fact that only one athlete will win the competition and all the others will lose; that injury or sickness can sabotage four years of work.”

Master of Change book cover
(Photo: Courtesy HarperCollins)

Showing maturity and wisdom beyond his years, he recognized that everything always changes: he could succumb to injury, he can’t control how his competitors skate, and one day he’d have to retire and move on from the sport altogether. Whereas so many athletes fuse their identity to their sport—and suffer all manner of performance anxiety and retirement or injury-induced depression as a result—van der Poel made himself more resilient and durable in the face of life’s inevitable flux. The upshot was more freedom and joy.

Once he opened up to change, he wrote, “there was no longer anything to fear.”

It’s not that van der Poel didn’t care. He trained upwards of seven hours per day, Monday through Friday. He pushed himself to the limit and then some, persisting through the physical discomfort that comes with being a long-course speedskater. He literally became the best in the world. And yet he maintained his strength by being flexible. What allowed him to lay it all on the line was the fact that he knew he’d be OK if—when—things changed. Because they always do.

Van der Poel epitomizes a quality I’ve seen across hundreds of interviews with happy, healthy, and high-performing athletes. It’s also something that comes up repeatedly in the literature on resilience and longevity. The goal is not to be stable and therefore never change. Nor is the goal to sacrifice all sense of stability, passively surrendering yourself to the whims of life. Instead the goal is to meet somewhere in the middle, to be both grounded and accepting of change. I’ve come to call this quality rugged flexibility.

To be rugged is to be tough, determined, and durable. To be flexible is to adapt and bend easily without breaking. Put them together and the result is a gritty endurance, an anti-fragility that not only withstands change but can thrive in its midst. Rugged flexibility is the quality you need to become a master of change, to successfully navigate the impermanence and chaos that accompanies even the most average human existence.

Unlike old ways of thinking about change, rugged flexibility conceives of change not as an acute event that happens to you, but rather as a constant of life, a cycle in which you are an ongoing participant. Via this shift, you come to view change and disorder—for athletes, this includes the three inevitable horsemen: injury, illness, and aging—as natural occurrences that you are in conversation with, as an ongoing dance between you and your circumstances. The more skilled you become at this dance, the happier, healthier, and stronger you will be.

You may not be as dominant at your chosen sport as van der Poel, but it doesn’t make becoming a rugged and flexible athlete any less important. This mindset (and its habits and practices) are crucial for a long and fulfilling active life.

Here are six guiding principles for becoming a more rugged and flexible athlete so that you can excel and stay strong amidst continuous change.

Understand, Accept, and Embrace Change

Change is inherent to a long career as an athlete: examples include injury, aging, rule adjustments, and new technology. There will be wonderful periods of flow and frustrating periods of friction. This is just how it goes. You do not have to like it, but work to embrace it. The more you resist change the more distress you experience. The more you open up to change the better you feel and perform. Plus, it’s not like you have any choice in the matter. Change is inevitable.

Adopt a “Being” Orientation

The 20th-century psychologist Erich Fromm distinguished between being and having orientations. When you operate in having mode, you define yourself by what you have. This makes you fragile because those objects, achievements, and attributes can be taken away at any given time. “Because I can lose what I have, I am necessarily constantly worried that I shall lose what I have… I am afraid of freedom, growth, change, and the unknown,” writes Fromm in his 1976 book, To Have or To Be. When you operate in being mode, you identify with a deeper part of yourself: your essence and core values, your ability to respond to circumstances, whatever they might be. A having orientation is rigid, static, and intolerant to change. A being orientation is dynamic and open to it. Make being a lifelong athlete more important than having any particular achievement.

When You Face Setbacks, Practice Tragic Optimism

Tragic optimism is a term psychologists use for a mindset that recognizes and accepts that change is inevitable and so is the pain, disappointment, and surprise that often accompany it. Tragic optimism doesn’t ask that you repress or bury negative emotions, but that you decide you’ll feel whatever it is you’re feeling and trudge forward nonetheless. Tragic optimism says: “Like it or not, this is what is happening right now; I am going to focus on what I can control, do the best I can, and come out the other side.”

Diversify Your Sense of Self—Within Sport and Beyond

Be like Nils van der Poel: develop multiple components of yourself as an athlete, and be sure to have interests and sources of meaning beyond sport altogether. This not only helps your performance now, shifting you from playing to win versus playing not to lose, but it also makes managing injuries and transitions easier.

Respond not React

Reacting is immediate and rash. Responding is considerate and deliberate. When faced with setbacks, you want to respond as thoughtfully as you can. A helpful heuristic is the 4P’s: pause and take a deep breath, process what is happening, plan how you want to go forward, proceed and adjust as you go.

Play the Infinite Game

In finite games, the point is to accomplish a set goal. In infinite games, the point is to keep playing. Running a marathon in under three hours is a finite game. Continuing to run and staying involved in the sport for as long as you live is an infinite one. Both are worthy goals, but working through the challenges of the former is a lot easier when you keep the perspective of the latter. The broader that perspective, the better. There is only one way to win a race or summit a mountain, but there are infinite ways to be a lifelong athlete.

Buy the Book

This article was adapted from Master of Change: How to Excel When Everything is Changing, Including You by Brad Stulberg and reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2023. It is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Bookshop.org and everywhere else books are sold.