From a dead stop, Kansas Football tight end Mac Copeland propelled his body forward. His front leg compressed the turf beneath his cleat and absorbed the force and mass of his 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame.
Without warning, Copeland’s sophomore season was about to have an abrupt ending.
Football is often known for its brutal collisions. But there were no defenders in practice that day, as the team ran several “routes on air.” Copeland focused on sprinting a swift route, followed by a catch.
Near the end of the route, Copeland turned to spot the ball. The leap and two-handed catch was a success. However, the landing was not. Copeland’s left foot planted awkwardly as he descended to the turf.
He immediately felt the “pop.”
From afar, the landing didn’t appear catastrophic. Copeland landed and remained on two feet. He didn’t scream or writhe in pain. Instead, he attempted to jog.
That’s when reality traveled the 78-inches of his body from his foot to his somatosensory cortex – the part of the brain responsible for physical sensation. Copeland called over a nearby trainer, unable to bear weight on his left foot.
As soon as the trainer realized Copeland couldn’t bear weight on the outside of his foot, he suspected the worst. In the training room, trainers removed Copeland's sock, ankle tape and shoe.
Copeland’s swollen foot and an eventual X-ray confirmed the severity of the injury – a broken metatarsal.
Copeland received a boot, crutches and later a scooter. His first sports injury ended his sophomore football season, but Copeland's sole focus was recovery over the next three-and-a-half months.
Athletes are athletes until they’re not. When the shock of injury hits, an athlete’s support system is vital. Without the backing of a strong foundation, athletes will struggle during the recovery process. This can be the difference between a quick recovery and a career-ending injury.
“Just from that other side of being injured, you see a lot, and you notice things you don’t normally notice on the outside in terms of your teammates and how they’re doing,” Copeland said, reflecting on the months of recovery. “It gives you a lot of respect for them and a lot of time for you to think about how much you care for your teammates and what you can do to support them, even when you aren’t on the playing field.”
An athlete’s environment:
Elite college athletes are identified by the sports they play. It would be shocking if they spent 20 hours a week perfecting a craft and it didn’t. So when an injury strips them of their sport, it’s painful. The mental and emotional recovery can take just as long, or longer, than the physical recovery.
The culture of a team starts with the coaching staff. Consequently, that culture is one of the primary variables impacting an athlete’s success during recovery, said Kansas doctoral candidate and researcher Troy Wineinger. The environment can either make an injured athlete feel disconnected and useless, or well-supported.
In the health, education and psychology of physical activity program, Wineinger conducts research on topics such as athlete recovery following an injury. During his work, Wineinger develops relationships with athletes who share their experiences of being injured.
“It can be exhausting for athletes,” Wineinger said. “To feel the pressure of, ‘I am not valued unless I’m contributing to the team success.”
Wineinger speaks from experience, as he ran four years of cross country and track at Fort Hays State University. During his fourth year at Hayes, Wineinger suffered an injury. During recovery, he began taking KU classes. With one indoor and two outdoor seasons of eligibility remaining, he initiated a transfer to the Kansas track team as a preferred walk-on.
After recovering from his injury, Wineinger began tryouts. But a few days in, he suffered a calcaneal stress fracture in his foot. With no signed commitment to the team, his college running career unceremoniously ended.
During recovery from injuries, such as his own, athletes often become stuck under what Wineinger calls “unproductive clouds.” These “clouds” of harmful thought compound when athletes face long-term injuries in unsupportive environments. Athletes then wake each day worrying whether they will be healthy enough to make it through practice.
“When you are in a team environment where the coach pays no attention to you because you are injured or you have teammates who kind of stop checking in, you see motivation go through the toilet,” Wineinger said. “You see shame and anxiety increase and it really makes the recovery process harder.”
For optimal mental and physical recovery, Wineinger said athletes should be encouraged by their support systems. Taking pressure off athletes to return rapidly also ensures they don’t return too soon. Reinjury only lands them back in physical therapy.
An environment in motion:
Hannah Roemer was a top-flight rower from early on in her Kansas career. Following two years running track at Garden City Community College, Roemer was recruited as a preferred walk-on to Kansas. During those seasons, she experienced the trifecta of the pressure to return from injury, returning too early and then experiencing reinjury or a new injury.
Roemer received treatment for her injuries and was diligent with physical therapy but never saw significant recovery progress. Without an end in sight, she rowed through the pain.
From the beginning of her college career, Roemer was the fastest in her class of rowers. This meant she often beat upperclassmen out of their places in boats, putting a target on her back.
“I was the top novice. Like, how cool does that sound?” Roemer said. “But the way everyone made me feel, it was like, ‘You should not be here.’”
During Roemer’s second year and rowing in pain, an X-ray revealed bone spurs on her left hip. In her final year of rowing, an MRI revealed she had a torn labrum from the bone spurs. Still, Roemer rowed through her injury until surgery that year.
After surgery, Roemer still had a spring racing season before graduation. She could have worked back into the boat, but the pain and possibility of reinjury stopped her when she tried. Instead, she decided to stop rowing, letting her eligibility expire.
As soon as she ended her rowing career, Roemer’s relationship with the coaches and team deteriorated.
“The coaches’ mentality over me switched like, ‘She is done for. We shouldn’t even think about her anymore,’” Roemer said.
The feeling of losing her sport and her team community weighed heavy.
“What we go through when we have an injury, grieving the injury, and then you’re grieving the personal identity loss,” Roemer said.
Kansas athletics did not specifically address Roemer’s experience but issued this statement: “We care deeply about the physical and mental health of our student-athletes, and we make every effort to support them whenever we are aware they may be struggling. Through our partnership with Kansas Team Health, many resources are made available to support the physical and mental well-being of KU student-athletes. Additionally, Kansas Athletics has partnered with RealResponse, a company that provides student-athletes an anonymous communications platform for sharing concerns or feedback about their experience.”
The mental trials of injury:
When an athlete is injured, mental resilience is critical. Recovery time should include physical and mental recovery, said Kansas Athletics’ student-athlete mental health clinician Jason Kraman.
Kraman said athletes deal with overwhelming schedules and exhaustion. Injury is rarely seen as an opportunity for athletes to take time for themselves. A time to reconnect with their “why” – why they play their sport; care about what they are doing. Athletes remembering their motivation behind playing their sport helps avoid “negative thinking traps.”
“Even the most elite athletes will literally slip and fall because guess what? We’re human,” Kraman said. “If they’re put on this in-human pedestal, it’s overwhelming. Instead, rather just be with them when there are missteps.”
The culture of a team created by the coach also helps aid athletes through mental struggles, Wineinger said. A coach can create adaptive or non-adaptive environments for athletes, motivating or demotivating athletes.
Research shows the most productive results come from task orientation. This is where success is based on personal effort and improvement. Athletes can only control their own performance.
“If you are defining your success based on beating others, measuring up to others, those things are out of your control,” Wineinger said.
If the environment crumbles:
Unlike Roemer, Copeland maintained a feeling of belonging throughout his recovery. He was supported and worked through the shorter timeline of his injury. He knew his injury wasn’t career-ending and rejoined his teammates once he recovered.
“When a leg injury happens to a football player, basketball player, anybody of the sorts, it’s pretty hard because you can’t – there isn’t any other way to be on the field with your teammates,” Copeland said.
Copeland said through his recovery, he was surrounded by good people. His teammates, coaches and trainers rallied behind him, and to this day, he is appreciative of the support. Copeland played in nine of 12 games last fall and plans to return for a fifth year.
Roemer’s situation was different. She faced an injury without a finite timeline. As a first-year transfer rower, she felt like an outsider. Roemer became overwhelmed with school, practice and her injury. Without the right environment, her injury ended her career.
Roemer graduated from Kansas in 2021 with an exercise science degree and is a performance coach at Google. She still remembers the difficulties of her injuries.
“I would have days when I would come back from a test and have a breakdown because I had three tests that day and then I had a test piece in rowing, and I just couldn’t do it,” Roemer said. “I said, ‘I am so physically exhausted that like whatever comes from this, it is not going to be my best,’ which is hard to say because obviously, I want to do my best.”
When an athlete is healthy, they can withstand the difficulties of a less-than-optimal athletic environment. When an athlete is injured, chaos pours into their daily routine. This is where the cracks in an unsupportive environment will show.