Lindsay Hoagland was not pleased to be seeing a sports psychologist.
The first visit in March, she worried, would only bring her closer to a decision she was hesitant to face: Will I play soccer and basketball again?
By November 2013, Lindsay’s sports career was taking off. She had made the Charlotte Catholic varsity basketball team as a sophomore. Just two days later, she scored three goals for Carolina Rapids, her club soccer team, in the State Cup.
Then, she says, her best game turned into her worst. She hit heads with a defender and smacked her head on the ground as she fell. Lindsay left the game. She knew something was wrong. On the sideline, she was diagnosed with a concussion by an EMT.
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Lindsay had headaches and nausea that made it increasingly hard to focus at school. Her grades began to drop.
She sat out from sports for eight months, then returned to fall soccer, then basketball. In December 2014, she was elbowed in the head at basketball practice; her second concussion. She was told to stop all athletic activity and turn off all her electronics – no phone, television or computer.
I always wanted to play through things, but looking back, knowing now what I know, it’s not a good idea if you are feeling symptoms. If you know, I wouldn’t risk it.
At school events, her parents were often asked: “When is Lindsay coming back to play?”
When her neurologist recommended she work with a therapist, Lindsay didn’t want to go.
“I think it just made it a little bit more real,” she says. “The possibility of not playing.”
Lindsay’s first meeting with Dr. Desaree Festa of Southeast Psych was difficult, and emotional.
That’s not unusual, Festa says. Her first role is giving athletes permission to feel what they’re feeling.
“At times they feel if they’re sad about their situation, they’re not being strong,” she said. “But it was giving Lindsay permission to grieve her old self. She had gone through a dramatic experience. Everything’s changed, even who she is at school. She isn’t the same person.
“Then we focused on the Lindsay she wants to be.”
Festa gave Lindsay an exercise: Write down who you are and describe your personality.
Inside circles on a paper she wrote: Driven, competitive, leading by example, work ethic, dedicated.
She was struck by a word she didn’t write: Athlete.
“So it didn’t really define me before,” Lindsay says. “It kind of made me see I could live without soccer. … It’s still crazy difficult, but I’m just now coming to the realization that that first meeting told me all I needed to know.”
Festa says Lindsay discovered that she isn’t losing who she was. She’s just doing it differently.
What matters most?
After school ended and her junior year was over, Lindsay was cleared to exercise again. That same day, in June 2015, she ran a mile in her neighborhood.
“I ran because I needed it so badly,” she remembers. “It just felt good – my muscles burning, even though I was dizzy looking up at sky. I thought I was going to fall down, but I was still running.”
She continued to meet with Festa, and they discussed risk and reward. What matters most over the next five years? What will you feel if you play and get hurt again? What will you miss out on if you don’t?
“Dez would say, ‘You’re going to change your mind a million times.’ I would think I wouldn’t, then the next day it would be, ‘What am I thinking? I need to play, that’s who I am. I want to walk across the court. I want to have senior night.’ I changed my mind about a million times.”
Finally, Lindsay, now 17, thought about how long it took her to recover from concussions.
“I’d been looking forward to college forever,” she decided. “It’s not worth risking.”
Lindsay went through things a little bit quicker than a lot of my athletes. She used the process well.
Dr. Desaree Festa
She still has some headaches but feels good about the first months of school.
“I never gave Lindsay the answers but helped her think it through out loud,” Festa says. “It doesn’t mean that emotions go away. It doesn’t mean she’s not sad anymore.
“What’s hard about concussions is that you don’t have that clear closure. You don’t really know when you’re actually fully healed. … Concussions are so ambiguous; that’s what makes it so difficult for people to handle making those decisions.”
Festa talks to athletes about finding meaning in their suffering. Lindsay says she has.
“Having a concussion actually helped me,” she says. “I want to be a biomedical engineer, or a neurologist, or something with the brain. That’s what I want to do. It happened to me. I have so much experience.
“It happened to me, and I’d like to help other people.”