AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 28, Number 3, 2019

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How Sports Prepared Me for Neurosurgery

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The so-called “life lessons” one learns from sports are so often described that the idea has become trite. Athletic endeavors certainly do not have a monopoly on lessons about teamwork, dedication, focus or perseverance. Young people who frankly have disdain for sports often acquire those traits in abundance, indicating that sports are no more or less effective at engendering them than adequate parenting, some good luck and the passage of time. But that does not dismiss the fact that sports can be formative. 

A Personal Tale: Trouble in the Making

I am not sure what I might have achieved if not for my involvement in sports, but I am confident I would not have become a neurosurgery resident. Like many in neurosurgery and other highly competitive fields, I was a restless young man who never felt comfortable or satiated. In retrospect, the origin of my disquiet was an overabundance of opportunity: I was the only child of two loving and generous parents who made a concerted effort to expose me to as much as possible of what life had to offer in our blue-collar town. I was healthy, energetic, physically strong and coordinated enough to keep up with the neighborhood kids who were generally a few years older. 

But I was also considerably smarter than most of my peers. So, by the time I found myself in the throes of puberty, I felt isolated, frustrated and aimless – which is by no means unique – and overflowing with physical and mental energy that seemed to only be expended by scheming and avoiding being caught while actively engaged in mischief. One day near the end of seventh grade, I looked around at my clique, a gaggle of 10 or 15 (of whom I was ultimately the only one who graduated from high school on time) and realized I felt disconnected from them too. At best, they had been companions who aided in bad behavior, laughed when I argued with teachers or occasionally ran with me away from whatever misdemeanors we might have committed. At worst, they were obstacles, distractions from playing lacrosse, which was becoming my focus and passion. I felt no real connection to them. 

Dedication to Academic All-American

I decided, consciously, that I was done with them and the way we had spent our time. I went home and told my father that I would be an Academic All-American, like one of my coaches. Five years later, I was one of 20 high school lacrosse players from across the country to receive the honor.

As I grew older, the lessons I learned playing lacrosse germinated, sometimes fermented, but ultimately evolved. Because of the success I had enjoyed early while playing lacrosse, I knew how to focus, persist and persevere through pain and fatigue along with how to use victory to motivate. I did not, however, know how to fail. As I achieved more, I ascended social, athletic and academic strata. Success became more elusive and fleeting. 

But training for and competing in a discrete athletic event — even if spread out over months — is far easier to digest than a residency in neurosurgery. In much the same way that drilling laminotomies prepares one to eventually drill clinoid processes, marathons prepare one to carry a pager for 24 hours at a time as a junior resident. Forsaking a warm, dry bed to wake up in the dark for practice on snowy icy fields prepares one to part from a devastated family in a trauma waiting room to persist and care for the remainder of one’s patients. The implication in requiring seven years for training is that there is no substitute for experience, but no amount of experience ever seems adequate preparation for our most daunting tasks as we stand alone staring them down. Each of the 2,557 days of residency is an exercise in rededicating one’s self as a solitary member of a team to re-learning the physical, mental and emotional lessons taught by athletic pursuits.

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