The Empathy Game

Apr 26, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) works out prior to the game against Orlando City SC at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 26, 2015; Orlando, FL, USA; Toronto FC forward Jozy Altidore (17) works out prior to the game against Orlando City SC at Orlando Citrus Bowl Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There are few more powerful things in life than putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In this case, those shoes happen to be boots — football boots.

Those boots belong to USA International and Toronto FC striker Jozy Altidore. When Jozy was acquired from Sunderland AFC as part of a swap between them and TFC I was visibly ticked off. Altidore in my mind was a rather lazy player who was more of a product of the USA Soccer hype machine than a bonafide top-tier striker. It’s not a surprise that Josy acquired the tag of “dozy” among many supporters of his various clubs.

Added to this was a propensity for Mr Altidore to spend as much time on the treatment table and injury list than the bench or pitch. Whether it was Copa America or the World Cup, Jozy was just as likely not to show as to be a part of the team on account of his health. Jozy was, to many, a failed North American experiment.

But a funny thing happened after the last injury that Jozy had, putting him out for a good third of the MLS season this year: he healed. And with his healing so too came the healing that I had for reasons I’ll now explain.

One of the issues that Altidore cited for the persistent problems was that his hamstring — the source of most of his absences over his career — wasn’t treated correctly. This summer at TFC he was given a different treatment regimen that was to correct the source of the problem, not just the symptoms of problem.

A funny thing happened as a result: Dozy disappeared. The player that returned to the Toronto FC wasn’t the one that would only half-heartedly chase balls (unlike his striking compatriot Sabastian Giovinco). Instead, what we had was a player who would run hard for balls, contributed to the scoresheet as much by presence and assists as by goals. And, interestingly, as the focus on playing well rised and the care about scoring decreased, the goals started appearing in bunches.

Building Empathy

I recently completed the remarkable and challenging course on goalkeeping offered by Mick Payne in the United Kingdom as part his Art of Saving program, which is now in its 17th year. It was a fantastic experience where I learned an enormous amount about the true art of saving. As a goalkeeper playing in Canada, there are few opportunities to get expert coaching on how to play the position.

I’d prepared for months working on a variety of fitness aspects as well as mental preparation. In the year prior to the August 2016 camp I’d be struggling with two connected injuries: an inflamed and pulled piriformis muscle and plantar fasciitis. At the time of starting the program I felt great: both problems had dissipated. But as I wrapped up, I found my piriformis muscle was a bit sore.

Returning to Canada and eager to try out my skills and implement the training program that Mick and his team taught me I, feeling great, started out with some light ball work at my local pitch. Within three hours of wrapping up training my piriformis was completely enflamed and in a level of pain that would find me hardly able to walk over the next five days.

What happened?

Like Jozy Altidore, I realized the power of a recurrent injury on performance. In the months after I was (what I felt to be) fully healed from the first piriformis injury, I was cautious and conservative. This is the same as Jozy Altidore not running his fullest for a ball. All of a sudden, with this return of my injury I began to empathize what it meant to have an injury of the deep-tissue type that Jozy had. All of my criticism faded.

Injuries are funny things and until you’ve really experienced them — which many fans and supporters have no idea about — it’s hard to put into context. Soft tissue injuries can nag for a long time and may mean the end of a career if not treated well. For Jozy Altidore and TFC, he could have easily ended up on the treatment table again right after coming back but, so far, he hasn’t. Not only has he stayed healthy, but he’s playing the best football of his career. This isn’t about not being injured, it’s about being confident that the treatment received worked.

As supporters we want to see our team win and our players succeed, but sometimes that can blind us to the realities of a sport where our team’s bodies are literally on the line for success. By getting a little more sympathetic and empathic we might be better able to understand when those bodies are best able to deliver the promise we expect.

Image credit: SBI