Her freshman year with the Maryland women’s lacrosse program loomed as an unnerving time for Victoria Hensh.
When she arrived in College Park in August 2019, Hensh moved out of the comfortable confines of her parents’ home in Woodstock. The Marriotts Ridge graduate saw more unfamiliar faces than familiar ones on campus, and her introduction to NCAA Division I lacrosse was put on hold because she was forced to maneuver around on crutches while recovering from a torn ACL and meniscus in her right knee.
“It is so hard coming into a school,” she said Wednesday. “That was my freshman year, and I didn’t really know that many people, and I wasn’t really sure how to open up to people about an injury that was so serious. After the first few weeks, I just felt like I didn’t know what to do.”
Hensh’s saving grace occurred when she discovered there were other Terps players dealing with serious injuries. Calling themselves “The Injured Athletes Club,” eight players met every other week from October 2019 to March 2020 with the university’s top psychologist to discuss personal triumphs, disappointing failures and mental status.
Hensh, now a redshirt freshman attacker, said the club rescued her.
“Without that, I think that would have been really tough for me, that feeling every day like I’m going through it alone when I was going through it with some of my best friends on the team,” she said. “I think having such a place, I brought up a lot of things that I wouldn’t have thought to tell people. Even on days when I didn’t feel like talking, in those meetings, I talked, and that ultimately made those days better. So I think it really limited the number of bad days that I had, and it helped me cope with how to handle coming back from an injury.”
The series of meetings was the brainchild of Dr. Michelle Garvin, the school’s director of clinical and sports psychology. She had worked with other sports programs and coordinated the formation of the lacrosse group with Allie Boll, the team’s athletic trainer.
“We thought it might be good for me to come in and talk to them about what to prepare for,” Garvin said. “We decided to do it as a group, and after the first session, we thought that it was great and was going well.”
Garvin found an enthusiastic partner in Lizzie Colson, a starting defender who sat out the 2020 season after tearing the ACL in her left knee while training with the U.S. national team in June 2019 and just a few days shy of a much-anticipated summer trip to Spain with her roommate.
After shedding some tears while relaxing on a beach, Colson, a Manchester resident and Manchester Valley graduate, underwent surgery July 3 and resolved to resume her lacrosse career. But back on campus, a coach asked Colson how she was feeling, and when the coach pressed her again, the redshirt senior broke down.
“I completely thought, ‘I’m an athlete. I’m tough. I don’t really need to talk about my health,’” she recalled. “But then I was like, ‘I’m not OK. I’m hurting, I’m sad, and I don’t want to do this.’”
Garvin and the players met every other week in the coaches’ office while their teammates took part in practice. Garvin had each player break the ice by reciting a success and a challenge.
The triumphs ranged from bending a knee to 90 degrees to returning to running to getting an A on an exam or paper. The obstacles ranged from a failure at reaching a certain physical benchmark to a setback to giving in to inner doubts.
The players offered words of support to encourage one another. They also shared advice in dealing with their injuries.
For example, to avoid getting braces wet while showering, players wrapped their injured body parts in plastic and applied petroleum jelly to the edges to prevent water from seeping in. They also washed their hair in bathroom sinks to reduce the amount of time spent in showers and wrapped the upper portions of crutches with hand towels to reduce armpit pain.
“I loved those meetings because they were so beneficial for me,” Hensh said. “You’re away from home, you’re at school, you’re dealing with the stress of school, you’re dealing with the stress of lacrosse, you’re dealing with an injury, and all of that piles on you. … I feel like any day, it’s nice to talk to a group of people who are going through similar things and just to have people to hear you out. I think even on your best day, it’s still good to talk about what you’re going through and how you’re doing.”
For Colson, the sessions forced her to show a different side as one of the team’s three captains.
“As a leader, your job is to be uncomfortable and to be in a position of vulnerability, and that’s exactly what it allowed me to do,” she said. “It allowed me to connect with people who I might not have connected with at this level. And I loved the feeling that when you left that meeting, you just felt so ready to take on the week. I was like, ‘I just had that big success. Let’s go have another one.’”
Garvin said the meetings highlighted the social aspect that injured athletes crave.
“When you’re an athlete and you get injured, a lot of times, that can feel really isolating because your team and your sport is not only a big part of your identity and what you love to do, but it’s also your social support as well,” she said. “When you’re injured and you’re frequently off the field and doing your rehab, you spend as much time, if not more time, dedicated to your sport without feeling some of the direct rewards that come from being able to compete with your teammates. So you can get home after practice and everybody is talking about what happened on the field and it can be really isolating. So developing this group together, they were able to give that support for each other.”
Attendance ballooned and waned as players sustained injuries and others improved enough to return to practice. Colson said players leaving the group after getting cleared to return to physical activity was reason to celebrate.
“It was always fun to say, ‘The Injured Athletes Club,’ and some people who were a part of it were healthy again, and we could say, ‘Sorry, you can’t come,’” she said. “We wanted to kick people out.”
Colson’s interaction with Garvin has cultivated a newfound passion in the former to pursue psychology. After graduating in the fall with a bachelor’s in sociology, Colson is to pursuing a master’s in clinical and mental health counseling with a focus in sports and has been interning for Garvin in clinical and sports psychology.
“I told Michelle in the fall, ‘I want to do this. I want to do what you’re doing. I want to help people in this way, and I want to be this outlet and this resource for people,’” Colson said.
Garvin said Colson has been a bridge between the doctors and athletes.
“She’s a great connection between our group and the student-athletes,” Garvin said. “Some things that we may think, ‘Let’s do this,’ she’s like, ‘Yeah, no one’s going to do this because of X, Y and Z,’ and we’re like, ‘That’s a great perspective we didn’t have.’”
The group met until the coronavirus pandemic shut down college athletics on March 12. Hensh, who said she would have continued to participate in the meetings if they continued online during the pandemic, said she is grateful for the “The Injured Athletes Club.”
“I think I would have held in a lot more than what I said,” she said. “And I think I would have felt that what I was going through was different or wrong because I can remember sometimes saying, ‘When I do this, my knee hurts,’ and others would say, ‘Oh my God, me too!’ I was like, ‘Oh thank goodness,’ because I was so nervous and so scared. It was so nice to know that what I was going through wasn’t abnormal or wrong. I had people going through the exact same thing.”