I am still marveling at Tiger Wood's incredible victory at the US. Open. His physical and mental toughness is practically unparalleled in professional sports. Yet, I wonder whether his victory was worth the cost.
Tiger publicly admitted that although he was told by his doctors that playing would risk further injury, he chose to play anyway. As a result of his decision, the viewing public was able to relish in one of the great golf championships of the past few decades, perhaps one of the best ever. Interest in the sport of golf most likely skyrocketed, improving ratings and corporate sponsorships. Athletes and spectators of all ages and levels of experience were inspired by how sheer strength of mind and determination can help overcome adversity and lead to glory.
Yet, questions linger. Are Tiger's golfing days diminished by his choice to play? Is it worth it to jeopardize one's career to win a tournament? Should athletes follow Tiger's lead and ignore the advice of medical professionals to pursue the short-term gain of the event at hand while risking further injury?
There are many examples of this "playing with injury" dilemma in professional sports. Most recently in the NBA and NHL championships, players sustained significant injuries and returned back to play to support their teams. Would the Boston Celtics have won the NBA finals if Paul Pierce opted not to play on account of his knee injury? Probably not. But, where do we draw the line?
Overtraining and over-use injuries in today's youth are on the rise as sport participation becomes increasingly popular (Brenner et. al., 2007). Whether it is winning a championship, trying out for that crucial travel team, or being seen by an important college recruiter, we are seeing athletes of all ages push themselves harder than ever before. The importance of winning that particular game becomes hyperbolized. Most of us, and particularly our children, aren't playing in world championships. Playing through serious injury is not likely to win a championship or wrap up a college scholarship. Yet, we are seeing many athletes play while injured when rest is the safer alternative.
Playing with an injury can lead to even riskier decisions. Some athletes at the professional level, who become dependent on using medication to numb their pain in order to play, may rationalize risking their bodies because they are playing for a contract. Sadly, these choices can lead to addiction, destruction of their personal and family lives, and crippling of their bodies. Earl Campbell, the great running back from the Houston Oilers, can hardly walk because of injuries sustained in his NFL career as a dominating and tough running back. As great as he was, I wonder what he would have to say about the choices he made or felt forced to make.
Tiger Woods is not the norm. His genetic gifts as an athlete combined with an intense and unusual form of early specialized training are an anomaly. Many athletes who drive themselves for as long and as hard as Tiger either burn out, become injured, or simply fail to play at a higher level because of lacking athletic talent. What Tiger Woods demonstrated in the U.S Open is a freak of nature. Only a handful of athletes in the world can perform at that level while injured and be successful. Tiger's performance is truly extraordinary. But let's simply call it that. It is not the standard. It is not the role model for athletes. And let's hope that the cost of his decision to play is only a small adversity in the course of a long and storied career.