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My Tommy John Experience: Derek Whalen

Waynesburg Yellow Jacket Derek Whalen tells his story this week, one that shows the benefits of an emerging field in sports.

Derek Whalen is one of many who went through Tommy John surgery and recovery before they left high school. His story is interesting, because it highlights someone who struggled with loss of confidence and bouts with anxiety, and whose struggles were ultimately mitigated by an emerging field within the game of baseball, and sports in general: Sports Psychology. If you have had Tommy John surgery and would like to participate in this series, feel free to email me at shawnbrody9@gmail.com, or DM me on Twitter (@ShawnBrody) to let me know.

Shawn Brody: So tell me your story. Tell me what happened, and how the injury happened.

Derek Whalen: So I had Tommy John surgery when I was 17-years old, and I tore my UCL when I was 16-years old – just before I was about to turn 17. I was playing with a travel team in Westminster, Maryland. I remember the exact pitch, specifically. I was warming up, getting ready to go into the game. I was warming up, actually, on a gravel driveway. Now, looking back, it’s kind of crazy to think about. It was just a fastball, I released it, and I felt that mythical pop that everyone talks about. I know some people say that they don’t, but for me there was definitely one specific pitch. I went numb down my pinky and ring finger, the whole way down.

As far as I can remember, I was incredibly sore for a couple days prior, but through that point in my baseball career I didn’t have a lot of direction or a lot of people guiding me as to proper arm care or training methods. We were just going off of natural talent. And at that point, me being a 15-year old kid, I was still bigger than everyone else. I was still pretty good, still one of the best players in my area. We just threw through pain, and we didn’t necessarily know how to deal with it. I think a lot of that, a lack of education, is what led to the injury, for me.

SB: So when were you told of your injury? Was it immediately after you felt the pop, or did you wait?

DW: On the way back from the game I stopped somewhere, actually, because I had never had an injury before where I couldn’t throw a baseball. It got misdiagnosed a couple of times. They told me it was a torn muscle, to rest it for six weeks. It’s amazing, when you’re not a professional athlete, how long it takes to get an MRI sometimes. You’ve got to deal with the insurance companies, get X-rays, all that stuff just to eventually get into the MRI machine. It wasn’t until a couple months later that we got the MRI and the actual diagnosis.

SB: I really feel for you there. When I tore mine, it went misdiagnosed as a muscle strain, and I kept pitching with it. So I definitely know how it feels to think that there’s nothing terribly wrong, that it’s no big deal—

DW: —and then you think if you rest it for six weeks, you’ll come back out and everything will be fine. Then literally nothing is better.

Derek in his brace

SB: Where did they take your new ligament from?

DW: They took the new one from my knee, from my hamstring. My surgeon didn’t like to use the Palmaris longus. He said it was like working with a piece of dental floss.

SB: (laughing) Well that’s comforting.

DW: (laughing) Did they use your palmaris longus?

SB: Oh yes, yes they did. So when you were told that you needed Tommy John, what was your reaction? What was your response, how did you receive the news?

DW: When they came in and told me, I didn’t really know how I felt about it. I wasn’t expecting it, necessarily. I know my mom, initially, was a lot more upset than I was – I can remember she cried a little bit. I don’t think it really hit me until maybe a couple days later exactly what I was going to have to go through, and everything I was going to do rehab-wise. So definitely it was emotionally challenging. I knew that my number one concern was: "What is going to happen to me trying to go on and play college baseball?" That’s was everything; that’s what I had always been trying to do – to go on and play college baseball. Now I was going to miss my junior year of high school, and everything was a complete and total question mark. I can remember crying a couple times just thinking about it.

It was a tough pill to swallow, but once I actually had the surgery and got into the rehab process I think that my mentality towards rehab was a big reason as to why I was physically able to bounce back. I always envisioned beating this, and I never wanted to be one of the guys that didn’t work hard.

SB: Did you ever struggle with deciding to have the surgery, did you ever struggle with hanging it up, or was your gut reaction just to have the surgery?

DW: I was absolutely going to have the surgery. At that point, I was 16 years old and baseball was my one and only love. I couldn’t imagine not playing in college and hanging it up right there.

SB: So what were some of your short-term expectations going into having the surgery, and what were some of your long-term expectations?

DW: For short-term expectations, the things that we talked about with the surgeon was just to get the surgery done and get into rehab as quickly as possible. I didn’t waste a lot of time at all. In fact, I remember, when I was in my cast, just taking a stress ball and lightly squeezing it – stuff like that. Also, I can remember that I started breaking down old video of me pitching, trying to figure out a diagnosis on my own, and figure out what exactly caused this. Of course, as you know, one of the things that a lot of people would start thinking that there were a lot of mechanical issues. I’d say short-term expectations were to get into rehab, work hard, and try to figure out what the problem was. As far as long-term goes, just come back, play college baseball, and have an entire career.

SB: So what are some emotions you struggled with in the time leading up to the surgery, and what are some emotions you struggled with following the surgery?

DW: There was some doubt. Most of my complications from surgery, initially, were physical problems. They didn’t necessarily cause pain, but I wasn’t the same pitcher anymore, and I had to figure out who I was. Those are what led to a lot of the emotional issues where [it snowballed]. "Why can’t I throw strikes anymore?" All of a sudden, now I’m doubting myself. Now I’ve got confidence problems. Now my teammates think I’m a head-case. Now that actually leads into me being a head-case. And that plagued me for my first two college seasons. Everything was a learning experience until last year. I’d say I definitely had some confidence issues come with that.

Derek pitching

SB: How did the surgery affect your mental state? What was your biggest mental struggle?

DW: Probably anxiety. I definitely was very, very anxious through the whole process. That’s something that never really went away until just recently. Every time I would pitch I would get very nervous; every time I would throw I would get nervous. You couldn’t necessarily get over that. The physical rehab was fine, but that didn’t mean the mental rehab was entirely good.

SB: So anxiety was a big struggle; did you ever become depressed? Did you ever seek out professional help for depression or anxiety, and how did you cope?

DW: I never got any medication or anything, I never went to a doctor, but there was one thing I did do – and I started this my sophomore year. At Waynesburg we have a program where the University of West Virginia sends an intern in their sports psychology PhD program – somebody who is getting ready to graduate – and they’ll come up here and do an internship with a lot of our athletes. So I decided to seek that out and talk to them. That, to this day, it is the number one decision that I made in my baseball career. Not only did it help me to relax, not only did it make me more confident in baseball, I was able to take those aspects and apply them to life in general, as well.

SB: Were you nervous about seeking that out? Did it turn out the way you thought it would?

DW: I knew that it was going to be mostly confidential, and I only really told my close group of friends, at first, that I was going to do it. So I wasn’t necessarily nervous seeking her out, but I didn’t expect it to do what it did for me. I could tell from the first couple visits that I had made a good decision, but I didn’t expect it to be nearly as good as it was.

SB: Did going through Tommy John surgery cause you to resent, hate, or feel angry at the game of baseball? How did it change your perspective on the game?

DW: Oh, it absolutely did – I almost quit. I didn’t tell you that, but after my freshman year, when I didn’t play very much, I wasn’t going to quit. I couldn’t imagine quitting at that point, but I was going to transfer, and that was basically a set in stone thing. Then one thing happened, we were in a playoff game, playing our rival Washington-Jefferson, and we were just getting killed. I had actually gone in the night before to get the last out because nobody in our bullpen could get an out, for whatever reason, so I was like the last resort – and I got the last out of the game. So the next night, we were pitching depleted at that point in the playoffs. Since we were already down about 10 runs, they stuck me in. Well, I went ahead and threw the next four innings without allowing a hit. At that point, after talking to my coaches, they told me they really wanted me to come back – it was almost like I couldn’t leave.

So I came back for my sophomore year, and nothing had really changed. Quite frankly, I feel like I got lucky in throwing those four no-hit innings as a freshman. I still didn’t know where the ball was going; I still wasn’t very confident in myself. That summer after my sophomore year, I remember pitching one game in a men’s league in my hometown and having the same problems.

At that point I just said I was done. I took that time off, dropped all my baseball workouts, started doing The Wolverine workouts (from the movies), getting ready to move on. But when I got to school, all of my friends played baseball. Baseball had been a huge part of my life, up until that point. So I decided to give it one more shot with the sports psych thing, and see how it would go.

SB: Did you ever resent your teammates during recovery? Did you ever feel alienated, or that you alienated yourself from your teammates during recovery or at any point after TJS?

DW: No, I never did. I’ve seen guys rehab that have alienated themselves, but I never did that. In fact, my group of friends were a huge support group for me throughout the whole process of coming back. I still thank them to this day for everything that they’ve done for me, just being there. So I never resented them or pushed them away, I was always open to talking to them about stuff.

SB: That you had the surgery indicates that you have a talent for the game, a love for the game, or a desire to continue playing. After the surgery, you were basically robbed of an ability to do something that has, like you said, come to define you, in a way. How did you deal with that? Were you able to deal with it at all over time with the sports psych thing, and how did you cope with it?

DW: How did I cope with feeling like there was an identity crisis going on?

SB: Yeah, exactly.

DW: I would say it definitely came with a little bit of depression, and just not being as confident in myself overall. I had let being a failure in baseball – and I remember using that term with my sports psychologist "failure" – I had let being a failure at the game of baseball define me as being a failure as a person. And [my being a failure] couldn’t have been further from the truth. I still had great grades, I was planning on going to physician’s assistant school afterwards (which I still am), I had a great group of friends, and I had a great life at home. You can’t just let the fact that not everything is going the way you planned it would with the sport that you play define you as a person. That is the big thing that I learned.

SB: When you made it back to the mound, did it ever feel the same? And are you OK with it if it doesn’t feel the same? What’s the feeling that you get when you’re on the mound today?

DW: I’m more than OK with it. I can’t necessarily remember how things felt before I had surgery just because that was, what, five years ago now. I’m definitely more than OK with however I feel. I can tell you that I’ve never had this much fun playing baseball before, because I’ve never been this grateful to play the game of baseball again.

SB: Do you wish someone would’ve warned you what going through the surgery was like? From a mental aspect and even, to an extent, the physical pain.

DW: There was one guy that I knew who played college ball and had the surgery, so I had a little insight as to what was coming up. I definitely wish I was able to talk to people a little bit more. Not that it would’ve deterred me from having the surgery, or anything, but just to know a little more about what I was getting myself into. That definitely would’ve been nice.

SB: So I’ll ask you the flip side now: what would you tell someone who is about to have the surgery?

DW: If I was going to talk to somebody who was thinking about having the surgery, or who had just had the surgery, the first thing that I would tell them is that I strongly recommend that you learn absolutely everything that you can. Learn everything about yourself, training, recovery, about all that physical stuff, and don’t neglect the mental side either. That would be my biggest piece of advice. Just never stop learning about the game of baseball. When you have Tommy John surgery, you enter this club of people that I feel are just… different from other guys that play baseball. You’re going to have something that sets you apart for the rest of your life.

SB: So, your scar. Do you consider it a badge of honor, a reminder of a sense of failure, a relic of growth? Did you get a tattoo over it?

DW: Oh yeah, I got a tattoo over it. It’s definitely a badge of honor. This one – it looks like the tattoo Steve Delabar has. It looks like baseball stitches, that’s what is on the scar, then right above the scar I have a word in all lowercase print, ‘freedom’. [On the word] there’s a little bird disconnected from the ‘m’, which is a symbolic thing. That word, though, is the defining word of the whole process, for me. Just being able to have that freedom, to have fun. To not be so against making minor adjustments here and there, and just playing the game loose and free. Having fun. That’s a big thing for me, it has a lot of meaning. I’m happy I got it.

Derek’s tattoo

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Shawn Brody is a contributor for Beyond the Box Score, producer of In Play, Pod(cast), and a pitcher recovering from Tommy John at Howard Payne University. He is a Junior majoring in Business Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. You can follow him on Twitter @ShawnBrody or email him at Shawnbrody9@gmail.com