Bournemouth-based Commonwealth boxing champion Chris Billam-Smith has claimed injuries have been the toughest battle of his career.
The Cruiserweight, who was due to fight for the British title in London on November 21 before an eye injury forced opponent Deion Jumah out of the bout, endured an 18-month struggle due to a shoulder problem that required surgery in 2016.
The 30-year-old admitted he even considered quitting the sport during this period.
“It was a difficult period for me. I definitely considered leaving boxing because it just seemed like such a long road back after my injuries since I no longer carried the momentum I had prior to my injury,” he said.
Billam-Smith’s full focus turned to boxing from the age of 16. With his family making the switch from a small flat in south London to Bournemouth earlier in his life, the budding fighter joined Poole Amateur Boxing Club where he learnt how to apply his trade. After spending over a decade in the amateurs, Billam-Smith turned pro at the age of 27.
The boxer first noticed his injury during an amateur bout in October 2013, in what was just the start of a long road to recovery ahead.
“I threw a punch and my shoulder just felt a bit weird. The next morning I woke up in agony, I was in a lot of pain. After taking eight weeks out to recover, when I got back to sparring my shoulder then went again. It was just that recurring process for the next ten months or so, it was something I learnt to live with.”
An injury can be detrimental to the mental well-being of an athlete due to being kept away from actively participating in sport. Whatever their motive is to be an athlete, whether it’s the passion for the game, training with others, or to simply put food on the table for the rest of the family, all of this gets stripped away when faced with overcoming an injury.
Billam-Smith, who was boxing in the amateur ranks at the time of his injury, discovered the severity of his injury after having an MRI scan on his shoulder. The boxer couldn’t even throw a right hook as his shoulder would pop out of its natural position.
“The doctor sat me down and said that my shoulder could be fixed, but I had to pick what was best for me. I had to choose between keyhole surgery where there was a 50 per cent chance of the shoulder being repaired, or an open surgery where I would be out for a longer period.”
Billam-Smith opted for the open surgery, but knew this would mean he would be inactive for a longer period of time than he would have done if he opted for keyhole surgery.
It was a big test for me mentally”
After making the career-defining decision, Billam-Smith went under the knife in 2016.
“I couldn’t take my arm out of the sling for six weeks, and after that I had to learn how to straighten my arm again! I had previously stopped drinking alcohol throughout the amateur season, and that was something I was determined to continue during my rehab. It was a big test for me mentally, having to stay in good shape whilst not being as active as I once was.”
Many athletes seek professional help in order to maintain a positive mindset and remain focused on their goals when injured. David Charlton is a Sports Psychologist who has experience of working with thousands of athletes recovering from injuries across a variety of sports including football, boxing, golf and cricket, and he believes this can impact the athlete’s commitment to rehab.
“Being kept away from sport can cause a decrease in an athlete’s intensity and confidence levels. It can also spark a period of grieving, similar to what may be felt when someone passes away. This can mean the athlete will likely experience moments of sadness and anger, causing relationships with people and hobbies to suffer.
“When an athlete is injured, they lose their identity. They no longer believe they are a footballer, boxer or golfer, because they cannot participate in the sport when dealing with their injury. This all links back to mental health, and can impact sleeping patterns, diets and even the relationship an athlete has with their sport.”
— Sidelined (@Sidelined_MMP) December 3, 2020
Former Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana described injuries as ‘dark moments’ with tears in his eyes as he gave an emotional interview to LFC TV in the summer. Lallana, who was raised in Bournemouth, missed 67 games due to injuries during his six-year spell at Anfield, and said that injuries will remain a constant battle for Premier League athletes in the future.
One man who has witnessed many athletes go through this challenging period on the sidelines is Physiotherapist Gary Lewin. The medic has overseen the treatment of an illustrious list of footballing superstars, including David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard during his time at Premier League clubs Arsenal and West Ham as well as the England national team, and believes this can be a lonely period for any athlete.
“Mental health is becoming such a big talking point in sport. When these athletes are out for a long period of time, they do need psychological support to help them through it as there will be many things going through their mind,” he said.
“There are so many mental pressures that an athlete is put under when injured. The first one is that they cannot play, and this is where a fear starts to take over. There’s also pressure from supporters to get back as soon as possible.”
View this post on Instagram
Lewin also urged athletes who start to notice signs of a small injury to come forward and seek medical attention.
“If you ignore a minor pain, it could then become a chronic pain which can cause structural damage to the body. This can turn an injury from a short-term problem into a long-term problem, and if that happens, you can’t compete.
“No athlete likes you telling them that they can’t play, but in the medical industry we need to be both honest and realistic whilst holding a duty of care towards our patients.”
More from this project: