Episode 31 | Small Wins

Show Notes:

  • The importance of small wins
  • Examples from other ACL athletes
  • Strategies you can use to help you through your own ACL rehab journey

What is up ACL athletes, and welcome back to another episode on the ACL Athlete Podcast. If you’re wondering why it sounds like Ravi has a smoker’s lung, it’s because my throat hurts. But we’re going to do this because we are not missing a week. They’re also destroying a building right next to us, so there’s a combination of throat hurting and destruction. We’re going to keep this short and sweet and to the point, which I know you guys love.

Today, we are talking about small wins. And you’ve heard me talk about this in the past. This is something that got me through so much with my own two ACL rehabs. Now, working with other athletes going through this, it is crucial in this process to emphasize. And this podcast episode is going to shed some light and give you some examples, some strategies, to think through as you’re going through your own rehab journey. If you’re a clinician, then hopefully you can also take some things away that will help you highlight things for your athletes that you’re working with. Look, we know ACL rehab is hard, it’s long, it can take a very physical toll, but also a very mental and emotional one. Some days you feel like quitting, that’s completely normal. If you go through ACL rehab and you don’t have at least one day where you’re like, I’m not cut out for this. I’m just going to be a bum, then something is not right because I feel like every single person has those days and it’s absolutely normal.

This episode is for those days that are hard and long, that you can help to push through. The goal is to celebrate the small wins. Now, you’re probably like, Ravi, that’s super cheesy. I’m not looking for motivation. I’m just looking to get my knee better. But I promise you these small little victories will add up over time. It’s something that we need in this rehab process because of what I just said. It’s long, it’s very physical, it’s very emotional, mental. If you’re thinking about, if you’re an athlete who can’t play with your team, you can’t practice, you can’t go out and do the activities that you’re normally doing, playing with your friends, or maybe you are doing recreational sports or maybe you just want to go and play out with your kids. All of these things take a toll on you. As you’re going through this rehab process, and if we’re looking at, at least 9 months to 12 months through this entire journey, we need these little wins to help keep us going.

First, I’m going to start by saying there is no win that is too small to celebrate. Celebrate each single one that you have. That starts from after an ACL injury to prehab, to immediately post-op, to the entire phase and the continuum, all the way till you get back to that thing it is that you want to do. Here are some examples. You have 10 more degrees of knee flexion, especially after ACL surgery, and range of motion is incredibly important to gain back. You get 10 more degrees. You have your PT or maybe you’re measuring yourself and you’re just trying to get that heel back, trying to get it as far back as possible, and you’re making those gains, especially early after post-op, or maybe it’s right after an injury. And you’re trying to get that knee to bend, celebrate those 5 to 10 degrees more. Maybe you’re trying to get those last-end degrees of knee extension, which we all know is hard sometimes. It might just be two degrees. You might go from zero to negative two. That is awesome. And guess what? You’re maybe three degrees away from getting that full hyperextension that we’re looking for typically in ACL rehab or getting close to that other side.

You get that heel pop, the glorious heel pop. Part of that is we can get that extension back, the quads kicking in, we get that heel pop where you can slide a little piece of paper underneath the heel, and then you’re able to activate those quads. That’s a good feeling. That’s a milestone. Your pain is better than yesterday. This may seem super simple. But pain and swelling both are huge in this process, and it can limit people a lot. It can be present throughout the entire process. There are some athletes who get it to go away really quickly. There are some who are dealing with it, 9 months, 12 months after, and even years after. But as you’re going through this, is your pain better than the day before? That’s a huge win. Swelling—the bane of our existence with ACL rehab because you can’t just take something to mitigate the swelling necessarily. Even if the swelling has gone down, that’s a huge celebration. You go from two to one crutch or you ditch them completely. You can finally drive again. Mom and dad don’t have to drive you places, which feels like complete freedom. 

And then we’re talking about maybe our first jump. When you leave the ground and you actually feel like an athlete, you’re like, “Okay, I can do this.” And then what about that first jog? I mean, you might feel like a baby giraffe when you do it. But one of those big milestones is if you can jog and your knee doesn’t blow up, that’s a freaking win. You got to celebrate that one. And then there’s that transition into getting onto the field or the court, or maybe it’s just like the change of direction and agility work. That’s when you really start to feel like, okay, I’m making progress. I can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel. And those are one of those things where when you get on that field or court, whatever drills you’re running, you got to celebrate it. So those are some examples to take with you. In that way, you know it’s not just these big milestones, it’s something just as simple as less swelling, or maybe getting a little bit more knee flexion on a specific day. 

One reflection strategy that I want you to take away from this, is that at the end of each day or maybe week, ask yourself what was a small win. Write it down, try to just list one maybe every day or every week. It will be a huge benefit. Write it down actually so you can visualize it. And even if you have the worst day possible, I still want you to try and visualize one win and how that can really impact your mindset. For each of my athletes, I ask them to do this. Every week they report back, okay, here was a small win for me, or maybe even what would a win in this week look like? I’m going to read you some from my athletes recently, to give you some hype, to give you some motivation. But also to know that they’re going through this process with you and they’re also celebrating these small wins.

Here’s one where it’s also, I’m really happy, I’m lifting 80 kilograms on the box squat. It felt really good. For some people, it might be really heavy, for some people it might be really light. But she’s celebrating that she hit a certain amount on her box squats, which is huge. Another one, this set was probably the best I’ve done. Knee felt great. Last week, it felt a little wobbly. This week is stuck when I hopped on it. Even just feeling that stability from one week to another can make a huge difference in like, okay, I’m heading in the right direction. There’s even this small gain of when I jump on it, this feels good. I’m finally improving at knee extension when hanging over the edge of a sofa, building comfort and easing into them. It’s just that small little bit. Let’s get that extension back. Things are a hundred percent improving day-to-day, and stairs getting easier and easier each day. No graft site issues while biking anymore. Who can feel me on the graft site issues my hamstrings always caused me issues, and whenever I finally could work out and train in rehab without my hamstring giving me an issue, I felt like a million bucks. So that is always huge. 

The stairs are something that can get overlooked pretty quickly. It’s like, ah, you can walk, then obviously you can take the stairs. But if you’re on crutches and you’re looking down at the top of stairs, it’s a little daunting. I remember after my first ACL surgery, I was in high school, there was this event and my friends wanted to go to the very top of the bleachers. I’m just going to sit at the bottom. I’m like, I can do this. I go with them to the top of the bleachers. I distinctly remember as we were going down, it’s not as hard going up. And I know you guys can feel me on this. But it’s the scary part of going down. Imagine at the top of these high bleachers in our gymnasium at high school, we’re all leaving. People were kind of coming in. I’m trying to move smoothly, fly under the radar, and you know what happens? I keep both my crutches on the stairs and then I try to step down with one of my feet. You don’t do that. You put the crutches down first. I almost lost it. Guess what? One of my friends caught me and it probably saved me from tearing my ACL again. And so that was one thing that this athlete, he’s like, you know, even going down the stairs is better. And for me, I know that once I was able to ditch the crutches, being able to go down the stairs was a huge blessing. 

Here’s one from another athlete. I think the biggest win from last week was really getting into the movements better and feeling the burn throughout my sets. It’s an encouraging feeling. It doesn’t have to be this huge thing. It could just be like, I had a good training session. I told this athlete to ditch her brace because she was being a little reliant on it. Her response is, my knee has been feeling pretty damn good without my knee brace on, with a bunch of emojis at the end. You guys can get the hang of this. I’m going to share this last one. Lots of progress. Don’t think when I have to go up the stairs now. I deadlifted 70-pound kettlebell for easy high reps. Monster walks felt great. Walked half a mile two days ago. The thigh definitely tightened up a little bit in the knee, but it’s better now. Scar loading is improving at the harvest site. I can sit wall sit, parallel. Working on single-leg wall sits now slowly. But these are all getting better. Those are some of the things that I just wanted to share because I think that it’s helpful to see real-life examples. These athletes are doing this daily and weekly, and it’s something that I challenge you to do.

Write it down either each day, what’s a small win? Set a reminder in your phone and just say what was a small win, and set it right before you go to bed. Or maybe you do it right when you wake up and you write about a win from the previous day, to help set the momentum for the day you’re about to tackle. Sure, every day isn’t going to feel like a win. That’s okay. But the goal is to use these small wins as momentum and to help you and your mindset, which is ultimately going to drive your rehab process, your recovery. It’s just a big part of how you are going to recover. Make sure you are taking care of this. Celebrate the small wins. And if you feel like you’re not really seeing much of that in your rehab, then talk to your therapist and ask them to just point out things that you are doing better. Maybe the PT or the rehab professional you’re working with isn’t necessarily just pointing those things out based on the clinic you’re at, maybe it’s their personality, whatever it is. But if it’s going to help you to push forward, maybe you can ask them and be like, “Hey, can we just kind of highlight some progress that I’m making?” I feel like every day is such a battle. And so then just see if we can just kind of add those small wins up. Have those conversations, write it out, and see how it feels. Heck, send them to me if you are on the gram at ravipatel.dpt. Please send me a small win that you have. I would actually appreciate that and I’ll share it. I think it’s something that needs to be celebrated, so do that for me.

I told you guys this would be a short one, but here we are, 14, 15 minutes later talking about small wins. But this needs to be talked about. This needs to be a reminder for you. Here I am presenting this, all with love. So that is it for today, everyone. I’m going to go and take care of my throat and maybe get away from this destruction of homes right next to me. Appreciate all of you, appreciate everyone who listens and takes the time. It really means a lot to me. The feedback and the messages mean a ton to me. So thank you all. That’s it for today, this is your host, Ravi Patel, signing off. Until the next time, team.

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