Interview by Mike Woitalla
Rachel Buehler suffered ACL injuries, in separate incidents, in both knees, as a teenager. Now 27, she has won two Olympic gold medals, a U-20 World Cup, a WPS title (Gold Pride), and has played 99 games for the USA, including five at the last World Cup. We asked Buehler, who starred at Stanford University and now plays for the NWSL's Portland Thorn, to provide some advice for young players faced with the challenge of rehabilitating from injuries.
SOCCER AMERICA: What’s your advice for players who are injured and face a lengthy recovery?
RACHEL BUEHLER: When you’re a young kid, it’s really devastating at the time – because soccer’s your life, and you’re loving it, and there’s the unknown.
But they will come back just fine. The most important thing is keeping everything in perspective and taking one step at a time.
SA: What helped motivate you during recovery?
RACHEL BUEHLER: For me, physical therapy was great. Not just because it helped me get better and better and better, but it gave me something to focus on – each little step.
I focused on a goal for each week: This week I want to gain two more degrees of extension or inflection, or whatever it is. I thought in terms of small goals and then felt like I accomplished something and was making progress. When I reached that goal, I got excited about it. That was a positive way for me to work.
SA: How does one console players who fear their injury will affect their long-term success as a player?
RACHEL BUEHLER: Let them know that everyone at our level, at the national team level, has had a serious injury. There are very few players who haven’t had an injury that required a six-month recovery.
Do what you really need to do to come back, and if you’re committed to it, you’re going to be fine.
SA: Was there anything your coaches, parents and teammates did or said that helped you?
RACHEL BUEHLER: I got flowers and cards, things like that. And those things are good, because it makes you feel loved and supported. …
The things that my doctor told me, my physical therapist, and my parents were like -- “This isn’t the end of the world. You’re young. Young people heal very well and very quickly. You have a lot of opportunities and career still ahead of you.”
Focus on the positive, because I think kids sometimes are so emotionally hyped up about the negative aspects. As long as they’re diligent in their recovery, they heal well from injury. ...
I had an awesome physical therapist who explained everything that was going on with the process. Why you have to do this first, and then that, and then this … So I became so educated about my body. I learned so much about rehab, and I think understanding that each step leads to another, to more progress -- that really helped me mentally and physically.
SA: Besides focusing on your physical therapy, how did you cope with the frustration of not being able to play?
RACHEL BUEHLER: I became even more focused on my academics. I put a lot of enery into it. I remember getting a 100 percent on my math final, because I just really put a lot of energy into studying. For me that was a good outlet.
And I really began appreciating my time with my family and my friends. Dealing with my injury gave me a lot of perspective. It made me remind myself, yes, I love soccer, and it’s a big part of my life, but there are so many other things in life that are important to me, like my family, my friends, my school.
I think even at that young age, being injured like that gives you perspective on what’s important in life.
I’m lucky that I’m a pretty positive person in general, so emotionally I bounced pretty quickly. I thought, “Well, this is bad, but what am I going to do about it?” I think I took a proactive approach and never questioned myself -- why did this happen to me? …
And as long as you feel really comfortable with the pace you’re progressing at – and you’re not rushing it, you have someone to help monitor you, and you make sure you’re doing what your body and mind feel comfortable with, that leads to a better, more confident recovery.
You have a lot of soccer still ahead of you.
(Rachel Buehler will be playing for the Portland Thorns in the inaugural season of the NWSL.)
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United/Bay Oaks in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)