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After just returning from a high ankle sprain, LeBron James said something that I have never heard an elite athlete admit.
“It’s impossible. I don’t think I will ever get back to 100 percent in my career.”
In my two-plus decades of professional sports and dealing with and treating high level superstars, I have never heard such a defeatist statement come from such a dominant athlete. To be clear, I have always been in awe of James and his on-court accomplishments, and my thoughts are not meant to be critical. My observation is that this statement runs counter to how other top athletes have handled injury and aging. They typically speak in terms of achieving the impossible.
No question that high ankle sprains are tough to deal with. However, I am still surprised at the frustration expressed with the admission that James was “more stressed” than ever over the recovery. Not to mention his medical conclusion about high ankle sprain is not accurate.
Most athletes do return to 100% after high ankle sprains. Admittedly high ankle sprains are much more common in football than basketball. NFL superstars Patrick Mahomes, Christian McCaffrey, Michael Thomas and Saquon Barkley have all suffered recent high ankle sprains, but we have not heard comments about never being able to get back to 100% and they all have returned to original form. I hope this is nothing more than just frustration from a tough injury. If for some reason James has undisclosed associated articular cartilage damage to his ankle, that would be a different story.
What strikes me as odd is that dominant athletes like James typically tend to err the other way. I get that there is no way to turn back the clock, and James’ comments were more general. Athletes tend to deny injury and the effects of father time. They tend to claim to be 100% when they may not be, just to avoid showing weakness. They tend to show killer instinct and never admit to any shortcomings. I have never heard Tom Brady or Patrick Mahomes cast doubt on their health. I don’t recall Michael Jordan of Kobe Bryant ever doing it. There is no way Tiger Woods’ back was anywhere near 100% (before the car crash and ankle/leg injury) as he had multiple surgeries and a fusion (resulting in loss of motion), yet we never heard that admission.
In my experience, it is not in the DNA of top athletes to think anyway but positive. They are wired to think about the possible, not impossible. Impossible is not even in their vocabulary.
Heck, Brady doesn’t admit to age issues or losing arm strength. You could call it mind over matter but that is part of what makes these special athletes superior. James previously has displayed that — but this seems to be a significant departure, and all of this makes his current admission even more unusual.
Perhaps the quote was taken out of context. Maybe James will clarify what he meant. Perhaps his admission is the way he drives himself to work harder. Even if the reality is that one can’t go back to being 21, James at age 36 can get back to his immediate pre-injury form. I hope and expect him to return to 100%.