“Playing Hurt” Hurts Us All

A lot of athletes think “playing hurt” is a badge of honor. In fact, athletes in my family took it even further. Let me explain.

My cousin Norm VanLier was a popular basketball player for the Chicago Bulls and top defensive player in the NBA in the 1970s.  The Bulls had reacquired Norm for the 1971-72 season, after having traded him in 1969 to the Cincinnati Royals.  With the Royals in 1971 he led the NBA in assists.  

Norm returned to the Bulls in 1972 and joined powerhouse Jerry Sloan. NBA.com calls Sloan “the original Chicago Bull” as the Bulls management selected him first in the 1966 NBA expansion draft. 

Calling himself schooling VanLier on what it meant to be a Chicago Bull, Jerry Sloan declared to Norm: “

“Now Norm, you have got to understand something. We take basketball really seriously here in Chicago–we play hurt!”

Norm, without missing a beat, retorted: “Well, Jerry, you’ve got to understand something also. Where I come from, we practice hurt!”

Playing Hurt

“Playing hurt” meant that athletes, elite athletes especially, persisted through injuries to play their beloved game.  Hailing from Midland Pennsylvania, and a member of the 1965 undefeated PA high school state champions, Norm’s “practicing hurt” spoke of an indefatigable work ethic instilled in Norm by the men and women in the working-class steel mill communities of Western Pennsylvania of that era.

Elite athletes aren’t the only ones who play hurt, though.  Employees in a vast array of industries struggle with “playing hurt,” that is coming to work when they are sick. For some workers they return to work too soon after surgeries and procedures. For others it’s showing up to work, donning professional faces, after witnessing the endless loop of traumatic media reports of violence and brutality in their community.

Playing hurt doesn’t just speak of physical injuries or pains. Too many workers ignore, overlook and press through the emotional and mental pain they experience from overwork, and toxic work environments. 

I can’t help but wonder whether or not corporate cultures don’t also reinforce this playing hurt mentality by prioritizing commerce over care. Wealth over wellbeing. It seems to me, we shouldn’t have to privilege one over the other, but instead, aim for both wealth and wellbeing, commerce and care.

My Family’s Legacy of Playing Hurt

For me, Norm’s conversation with Jerry Sloan was more than male banter. I heard Sloan recount this incident at Norm’s funeral in 2009. He died at the age of 61—still in the prime of his life. Though a decade older than I, I had looked up to Norm and became a life-long Chicago Bulls fan long before the MJ era!

For generations my family cultivated that “playing/practicing” hurt ethic. On my mother’s side of the family, we called it the VanLier tenacity and on my father’s side it would have been the Porter persistence. That grit showed up, still shows up, in everything we do. Yet that “playing/practicing” hurt mindset, may have contributed to many members of my family dying at relatively young ages.

As Black Americans growing up in a predominantly European American cultural milieu, what was modeled and explicitly taught to Norm and me by our parents, relatives and community members is that we had to give no one excuses ever to dismiss us because of our race. And yes, we played hurt, practiced hurt, worked hurt. We believed it was critical to perform above and beyond. We pushed through the pain and persevered in the name of success.

Increased Demands to Play Hurt

Now the demands of our workplaces (including athletics) seem to require us to give even more–especially in these pandemic times in which we are all working under the strain of uncertainty and a cloud of stress. As a business owner and founder of a 20-year-old training and consulting company, I’ve gone above and beyond to make my company successful. Sometimes I’ve pushed myself past my limits. I’m not complaining. I feel blessed to get to do what I do.

But there comes a time when each of us has got to say enough. We cannot continue to define success purely in terms of business metrics at the cost of our mental and physical wellbeing.  

Consequently, a few years ago, I adjusted the way I worked, ran my business, and even interacted with clients to incorporate wellness practices into my leadership.  My goal is to lead for the long run and to be well doing it. I call my process Leading Well. I’ll be sharing this program my team and I are developing soon.  In the meantime, here are some things you can start doing now.

Stop Playing Hurt and Prioritize Wellness

It sounds easy to do, but can be tough to shift your way of being when this way of being has led to some level of success. Moving from a mindset of playing hurt to one of wellness requires a radical shift in your thinking and identity. The actions that comprise playing hurt become second nature. We do them without thinking. Until we can’t do them anymore. Whether you are an athlete, a worker, manager or leader in any industry, you are a human being first. You deserve to be well and give yourself what you need in times of stress, trauma and pain. It’s time for so many of us to shift to a wellness mindset.

1. Build a Wellness Plan

The first step in prioritizing wellness is to learn more about it and then develop a plan around it. Typically, the pillars or categories of wellness that work hand in hand in our lives are spiritual, relational, physical, mental, emotional, and occupational or vocational. Some programs include environmental; others include recreational and play. Each pillar is related to the others. Too often workers focus on work or occupational activities to the detriment of these other areas of life.  Start today to develop a wellness or self-care plan around these pillars. Start by figuring out your current state. Here’s a wellness assessment that I like:

The Living Compass Self Assessment

According to the Living Compass site, This “Self Assessment is designed to help you assess the following areas of wellness in your own life: Care of Body, Stress, Vocation, Organization, Rest & Play, Spirituality, Emotions, and Relationships. It is meant to be a snapshot of your current life and a tool used to help you focus your future wellness goals.”

2. Invest Your Time Wisely 

Back when I worked in a large corporate professional services firm, the running joke was that junior associates wouldn’t (couldn’t?) leave the office until their managers did. They had to put the face time in even if they had no more work to complete.  And did some of our partners, directors and senior consultants work long hours, me included. It was a badge of honor for us to work long hours and travel nonstop. We were road warriors after all. The one thing the pandemic has taught us is many of us can work from anywhere and it is more important now to invest our time into healthy work and life practices and not perfunctory face time tactics. Schedule time on your calendar for you.

3. Set Boundaries at Work 

One of my clients modeled this for me. And executive with one of my former employers, this woman shared a story in which she discontinued a call from her boss who was calling the day before Thanksgiving, a day she had taken off, while she was preparing her turkey and family meal. She picked up the phone to answer his call but asked to schedule the call at a time that was more appropriate for both.  

Setting and maintaining boundaries that protect family time, work-out time, or vacation time takes a commitment to one’s own wellbeing. It also acknowledges that each of us will better serve, lead, or manage others if we honor our boundaries.  My boundaries are good for me and you. 

4. Set Expectations for those You Lead

Too often leaders, especially, do not model workplace wellness practices.  For one organization for which I am providing organizational development services, two leaders of a technology team have both participated in calls while they were in the hospital. I commented on this when the first leader did it, expressing how much of a sacrifice it was for him to join us from his hospital room.

The second leader did something similar just a few days ago. He dialed in to the call while he waited to for his minor (his words) surgical procedure. I talked with the head of that organization afterward and asked if that was his expectation of his leaders to show up to calls from hospital rooms. He admitted it was not but felt it wasn’t his place to tell his people how to live their lives. I gently coached that it was indeed his role to set expectations for employees and team members to feel free to fully attend to their healing and health practices. 

If you are a manager or leader of people, set the tone for wellness. Take your vacations. Fill your weekends with life-giving replenishing activities away from work. And share those activities with others.

5. Redefine What it Means to be Strong

In a recent NY Times article, tennis great Venus Williams wrote: “it doesn’t matter who you are. You need support. You can’t divorce mental health from anything you do. It impacts your physical well-being, your decision-making, your ability to cope with difficult moments.”

Today, playing or working hurt is not what it means to be strong.  In fact, Williams ended her essay with a plea:

“Let’s show up for ourselves and for one another and recognize what it takes to truly be strong.”

Each of us shows what it means to truly be strong when each of us can make the tough decision to prioritize our health.  

For me being strong means saying no when I really can’t do something; asking for help; slowing down when the world seems to have sped up; getting still even though everything around me pressures me to speed up; and prioritizing my mental, emotional, and physical health through self-care.

A popular hashtag being used for this month is #SelfcareSeptember. Let’s make it more than a hashtag. Let’s make a commitment to practice self-care and wellness with intentionality at home and at work.  

And let’s not play, practice or work hurt any longer. 

8 Comments

  1. Carla Smith Jones

    Comprehensive, forthright commentary. I’ll share this with my leadership team!

    • drjeanneporterking

      Thank you, for responding and for sharing with your team. We can and must do better.

  2. Judy Flowers

    Wow, too many are playing hurt, and fail to understand the necessity of#Selfcare in order to be mentally and physically healthy. Yes it absolutely requires a shift in our mindset. Thank you for this must needed article. May God continue to bless, strengthen and keep you.
    Judy Flowers

    • drjeanneporterking

      Thank you for your feedback, Judy!

  3. Florence

    Dr. Jean,

    Really good insights and particularly about the role leadership plays in setting an example on incorporating and prioritizing wellness as part of normal work culture instead of expecting, rewarding and elevating team members for “playing hurt.”

    Two experiences came to mind when I read this. I recall one of my first experiences in corporate America, two years into a role in a high tech org when I took time off to have my baby. During the same period of time the organization was setting up for massive layoffs and my then boss left a voice message for me that I should consider cutting my maternity leave short so I could be seen to be a valuable part of the org. Being younger and more impressionable, I trusted his judgment in spite of the fact that I was still recovering from a c-section which is in fact a major surgery. What saved me was when I called back, the phone was answered by his secretary and when I shared why I was trying to reach my boss, she told me to focus on getting better and on bonding with my baby because I would be no good to the org or anyone else if my physical and mental well being were not ok. She also educated me on FMLA laws and my rights if any problems came up later. In addition, one profound thing she mentioned was that this was not the only employer in town and if my taking care of my wellness was not important to the org perhaps my talents would be better appreciated elsewhere.

    The other scenario is my experience in a faith based org where leaders play hurt and train hurt all the time because having it any other way is equated to a lack of faith. I am learning particularly in the faith based volunteer environment to think through every ask and know that it’s ok yo sometimes say “No, I can’t or won’t do that”

    From the experience I believe part of what makes one play hurt is fear of being deemed irrelevant and weak. An unreasonable thought about how indispensable we are also contributes to our playing hurt. But one thing I know now that if I disintegrate or I am no more, work still goes on, new champions still rise but my immediate family suffers more life long impact of my choices. Showing up fir my employer is great but being there for myself and the ones who matter to me is even better.

    • drjeanneporterking

      Thank you for these two powerful stories! And Thank God for the Secretary who coached you on completing your maternity leave!

  4. Lamar Burch

    This was extremely informative. Playing hurt has become the normal for so many ( me included). Will definitely rethink my life balances for the long term.

  5. Crystal Dixon

    Dr. Porter King, thank you for sharing such a wonderful and practical article!

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