Senior co-captain reflects on mental growth following ACL tear

December 2, 2021 — by Nidhi Mathihalli and Anjali Nuggehalli
Senior Emma Foley rests on her hospital bed after getting ACL surgery.

As the whistle blew to kick off the girls’ soccer game against Los Gatos in January of 2020, Emma Foley couldn’t shake off her nerves. In the second game of the varsity season, Foley was starting at center back, a position relatively unfamiliar to her.

As she sprinted to defend a through ball in the first 10 minutes of the game, Foley was clipped from behind by an opposing player, feeling her knee twist before she toppled over. 

“I heard a pop and was in denial for a week because I could walk, and even run,” said Foley, a senior who is now the team’s co-captain. “I was trying to convince myself that it was fine, but I was lying to myself.”

Despite the original swelling reducing as the days went by, Foley’s knee buckled with certain movements, and she sometimes felt it was “going to give out.” A week later, Foley got an MRI. It revealed she had torn her ACL. 

Upon getting the news, Foley, who has played the sport since age 8, said she was “really overwhelmed,” and scared because the sport was a big part of her social life and physical activity.

“In the beginning, [the recovery process] was really hard for me because if you do something for like all your life, it’s just built into your schedule,” Foley said. “I just expected it to be there all the time but suddenly, it wasn’t there anymore. It was a lot to take in at one time, and was extreme emotional distress.”

Following her surgery, she was in recovery for a year, doing physical therapy exercises frequently to rebuild her mobility and strength. For the three weeks following her diagnosis, she was in a brace, unable to run or exercise frequently. After these weeks, Foley slowly regained her range of motion, which she remembered as being difficult due to fluid buildup. 

Eventually, Foley was able to take her brace off, and started walking and running regularly. Since she was not allowed to play contact sports for the foreseeable future, she kept up her fitness by doing cardio and sharpening her technical skills with the ball. She also gained a deeper understanding of the importance of fitness and nutrition.

“As an athlete, I was running at least 5-6 miles a day, so I could eat whatever I wanted,” Foley said. “I burned a ton of calories. But now, I had to worry about what I was eating and drinking. In the end I came out better, but in the beginning it was really rough mentally.”

Though Foley tried to stay optimistic as the months went by, the drastic changes were a lot to cope with. For instance, she was considering college recruitment for soccer, but, after her ACL injury, she decided that this path was no longer a viable option.

However, the intensive recovery process allowed Foley to create goals for herself rather than be stagnant at home, a grueling mindset that she found similar to her experience playing competitive soccer.

“While doing PT, we never dwelled on things for too long. There was always another goal to hit,” Foley said. “There was always more progress to be made, which helped me feel like I was moving towards getting better.”

At the beginning of the soccer season in fall of 2020, Foley was cleared to return to play. To relearn the basics, Foley did individual drills during practices that focused on the weight of her touches. She also did additional training on her own time, such as juggling challenges, to re-familiarize herself with the sport.

As a co-captain for her final year on varsity, Foley said she is looking forward to being a mentor for younger players now that she is fully recovered, and developing a sense of community that she felt was absent over the pandemic. Along with being a vocal leader on the team, she also helps bridge communication between the coaching staff and players, and leads pre-game warmups. She also acknowledged the mental growth she had during her recovery journey, and the role it has played both on and off the field.

“Resilience, diligence and patience have been my biggest takeaways,” Foley said. “That’s something I’m really happy to be going out my senior year with.”

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