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Why do athletes play through injury?

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As the debate about head injuries in soccer rages on, we asked for perspective on why players push on through injury.

Shaun Botterill

In 2012, FIFA published reports from a study by national team doctors that revealed 39% of players in the 2010 World Cup took painkillers before every game. The only surprising part? That the number is so low.

Suffering is as diverse and as unique to the person as their own fingerprints, but players playing through injury is as old as time. Having played soccer my whole life -- recreational, club, college, semi-pro and professional -- I've seen more painkillers in locker rooms, gym bags and personal containers than I can count. I would speculate that most players haven't actually been 100 percent fit in a very long time.

Recently I was brutally injured while playing in a rather important game. I made a run beyond the defense with my teammate providing a through pass that ran between me and the onrushing goalkeeper. Ever the goalscorer, I clipped the ball over the keeper with my left foot -- imagine the shame of being right-footed! -- while the keeper ran through my planted leg, bending it inward in the process. My mind heard a crack and, fearing the worst, I burst into tears as I tumbled towards the goal.

Nonetheless, I stood up, repeatedly grabbing my leg to check for any signs of breakage. The lower part of it, below the shin and around the ankle, was numb and felt disjointed. When teammates asked if I wanted to take the resulting penalty, I waved them off, using the excuse that the one that wins it should hardly every take it. I could feel my leg massively swelling and bulging through my socks.

After the spot-kick had been converted, I gave the obligatory thumbs up as I hobbled back to our side of the field. If the leg wasn't broken, I could run it off -- the motto of every hardcore coach and athlete ever. Walk/run it off has been the mantra of my athletic career since as far back as I can remember, followed by the retrospectively stupid "if you can run, you can play."

I played --  "played" being used loosely here -- the rest of the game, then, quite foolishly, through a second one, after which I couldn't feel most of my right leg, barring the shooting pain that burned incessantly whenever I took a step. Laying on the sideline after the game and hurriedly searching for the pain killers stored in my bag, I kept repeating to myself how idiotic playing on had been.

But the truth is that if you put me in that situation again, I would make those same choices every single time. In fact, I have done it before. I've suffered a complete cartilage tear in my right knee during college, a foot sprain, an injured hamstring -- Diego Costa, eat your heart out -- a pulled groin muscle and what I suspect to have been a concussion, though I'm not too clear about that last one.

Most players would do exactly the same. You'll see it for yourself, whether on television or at your local rec league. The strength of the competition hardly matters. Instead, these players possess an innate drive to try to play through injury. That drive has various roots. For one, almost everything in sports training teaches you to master your body, surpass your limits and conquer pain in order to become great. An injury is the shocking revelation that regardless of how much you've trained and how hard you've worked, your body is as malleable as silly putty. No one wants to accept that, and so you tough it out. You play for your hopes and dreams, risking the future for the now. Coaches commend it, fans label those who do so as warriors and the media showers them with endless praise. Brave! Committed! Tough!

But playing through pain is rooted in more than just a warrior mentality. There is also the aspect of personal shame. Fans are arrogant enough to believe players play on due to their the love of the shirt and other silly ideologies, but players, like many people, often do it just for themselves. Try to remember the last few players that you've seen taken off injured -- how many of them voluntarily asked to be substituted? How many have instead tried to "walk off" the injury or continued to play until it was painfully obvious they had become a liability? A player's disappointment and shame can be seen in the way they hang and shake their heads in disappointment as they walk or are carted off the field.

The shame stems from that terrible realization that you are weak. You have let down your teammates, your coach, the fans and, most importantly, yourself. You are not strong enough for your dreams. When I was soaked in tears that Saturday afternoon, lacking any feeling in my leg, I repeatedly prayed and bargained with every higher power I could think of for the strength to finish the game. Because it had become painfully aware to me that regardless of how hard you work or how skilled you are, the body has its limits and it does not care for your dreams.

The misconception that players are unaware of their privilege in playing the sport that they love for a living is erroneous in many ways. To be an athlete, especially at a high level, is to be continuously critical of oneself, often to the point of constantly degrading your skills. You constantly jumble your strengths and weaknesses in your mind throughout every training session, knowing that there's always an audience. There's also the fact that to play is a privilege, but rather a right earned both through talent and culmination of incredible work. Out of literally millions, you're one of the few who have made it this far.

With that in mind, it's little wonder players continue to play in situations many fans would find stupid. Cristiano Ronaldo sacrificing his knee in the World Cup, Mesut Ozil starting against Chelsea with damaged ligaments, Kaka playing for Brazil with a hernia, Diego Costa soldiering though endless hamstring injuries and, I assume, every Arsenal player ever playing in any game. The list is endless.

A player's mentality is a damning mix of fear, pride and shame that almost always hurts in the long run. But after countless hours of training and practice, combined with a lifetime of strife for the opportunity, injury, whether big or small, won't stop players who have made hurdling obstacles a routine occurrence.