Jan 29, 2015Q&A with Will Hall
Washington and Lee University
By Patrick Bohn
Patrick Bohn is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. He can be reached at: [email protected].
When the Washington and Lee University men’s tennis team had a match against Christopher Newport University moved to an indoor facility on the nearby campus of The College of William & Mary in late March, the players and coaches were grateful not to have to play in the rain and risk sustaining a muscle pull or strain on the slick surface. Unfortunately, the move indoors didn’t stop Generals senior Will Hall from sustaining a very serious injury.
Hall’s doubles match that day went to a tiebreak in the first set, and with he and his partner up 6-5 in the tiebreak, he raced to the baseline to return a ball. Hall’s momentum carried him off the court, directly toward a wall made up of glass windows that allow spectators in the lobby to see the action on the courts.
In a move born of self-preservation, Hall jumped in the air as he approached the wall. His plan was to plant his feet and spring back onto the court. “It’s something I have done before when playing outdoors,” he says. “But usually, I plant against a fence that has some give. In this scenario, my right foot hit a solid window.”
Upon contact, Hall’s lower leg went through the glass. The thick panel didn’t completely shatter, and Hall unknowingly made the situation worse by pulling his leg out from the broken window. “That was definitely not the smartest thing to do,” he says. “When I looked down, I saw a ton of blood, and my calf was practically hanging off my leg.”
Immediately, Hall laid down on the court as chaos erupted around him. Neither of the teams had an athletic trainer at the match, so Washington and Lee Head Coach David Detwiler, Assistant Wrestling Coach Mike Bennett–who happened to be traveling with the team–and a pair of doctors and a nurse who were in the stands quickly converged to perform makeshift triage.
Hall had a massive gash on his leg, had nicked an artery, and was bleeding profusely. Bennett elevated Hall’s leg in an attempt to slow the blood flow, while the others used anything they could to make a tourniquet. The group’s quick thinking bought Hall time until EMTs arrived to take him to a hospital.
Hall was losing blood at such a fast rate the ambulance had to take him to a closer hospital than originally planned. He was later told that he lost 40 percent of his blood from a severed calf muscle and cut hamstring. Hall needed over 100 stitches and staples to close the wound.
When Matt Phillips, MS, LAT, ATC, the Assistant Athletic Trainer who works with the tennis team at Washington and Lee, received an e-mail from Detwiler later that night detailing the accident, he thought the coach was kidding. “Sometimes, Coach Detwiler sends out e-mails that playfully exaggerate the extent of an injury, and that’s what I thought this was,” Phillips says. “But when I saw Will two days later, I knew it was no joke. It looked like his leg had been attacked by a shark.”
Thankfully, the tendons in the back of Hall’s knee were not damaged, but he still had to have his leg placed in an immobilizer for several weeks. While Hall knows things could have been worse, having his leg immobilized still caused quite a few changes in his life.
“I had to move from an off-campus apartment to the first floor of my fraternity house because I couldn’t drive a car,” he says. “I couldn’t walk very well so I used a golf cart to get around campus. I even had trouble getting in and out of the shower.
“It was really frustrating,” Hall continues. “To make matters worse, I was pretty sure my career was over. The doctor said I wouldn’t be able to walk or run for close to a month, so I didn’t think there was any way I could make it back by the end of the year.”
Phillips agreed at the time. Getting Hall back on the court was the furthest thing from his mind. “I was focused on getting Will back to walking and running by the end of the school year,” he says. “That kind of injury can affect your gait, so arthritis and hip problems down the road are big concerns. I didn’t want that to happen to Will.”
For the first two weeks following the injury, Hall was on pain medication and in the immobilizer. The only exercises he could do were isometric quad sets, and Phillips had him doing them as often as possible. “I had Will do those in sets of 10 whenever he could,” he says. “It’s pretty hard to overwork the quads, especially since in his case he wasn’t going to be walking on them anytime soon.”
After two weeks, Hall was cleared by doctors to remove the immobilizer, but only when he was sitting at home or doing exercises. He needed to keep it on if he was going to move around. At this point, Phillips gave Hall more exercises with the goal to increase strength and flexibility in his leg.
To increase flexibility, Hall did heel slides, where he would sit on a table with his leg in front of him and his heel resting on a towel. He would then slide his heel back toward himself as far as was bearable and hold his leg in that position for 10 seconds. He also did a slant board stretch for his calf. Mixed in with these were traditional towel stretches for the ankle and hamstring stretches from a standing and sitting position.
To build strength in the early part of his rehab, Hall did weight shifts, moving 70 to 80 percent of his weight onto his injured leg, as well straight-leg raises and modified calf raises. “The calf raises were almost like heel raises,” Phillips says. “Will would sit in a chair, and rather than go deep into a plantar raise, I told him to try and tap his heel like someone with a nervous twitch might tap their toe.”
Things were going smoothly for Hall, but right at the time Phillips was ramping up his workload, Washington and Lee’s spring break began. Hall was going to the beach with his family, which meant that Phillips wouldn’t be able to track his rehab.
“Any time you’re rehabbing an injured athlete, you worry about complications when they’re away from campus,” Phillips says. “I had exercises lined up for Will, but I wondered if he would just be sitting on the beach relaxing and not doing the work.”
Phillips had no reason to be concerned. “Every day, Will called or sent me a text message,” Phillips says. “He let me know what exercises he did, how he felt afterwards, and asked if there was anything more he could do. He was unbelievably motivated. That made it easy for me, because not only was he improving, I wasn’t in the dark on how his leg was responding to the work.”
When Hall returned to campus, he continued to make strides and he began to think that he might be able to return to the team before the end of the season. With the goal seemingly attainable, Hall badly wanted to play again.
The only hiccup that presented itself was monitoring Hall’s pain level, something Phillips admits was a challenge. “The difficulty in Will’s case was that we didn’t know if the pain was general muscle soreness, something resulting from the exercises, or from the lacerations on his leg,” he says. “And because everyone has a different pain threshold, all I could do was listen to him and try not to push him too hard.”
Throughout his rehab, Hall spent time with his teammates and attended every practice. He even took on a role as an unofficial coach.
“I didn’t do any formal coaching,” Hall says. “But I would try to give pointers to my teammates wherever I could. I really focused on making sure the guys didn’t get down on themselves mentally.”
With his rehab progressing smoothly, Hall returned to practice on a limited basis a little over one month after the injury, although Phillips and Detwiler kept a short leash on him at first. “Those first few days, all they wanted me to do was stand in the corner and hit balls cross-court,” Hall says. “They were concerned about me tearing the muscle again, so we kept my movement limited.”
Hall suffered no setbacks, so the next week he started moving around the court and serving. At the same time, Phillips increased Hall’s rehab work, adding repetitions and weight to the straight-leg raises as well as incorporating single-leg balance work with a medicine ball toss to increase proprioception and strengthen the fine motor muscles in his ankles and knee.
“By this point, my leg was feeling really good, and I had started thinking about the possibility of returning for the NCAA Championships in late May,” Hall says. “During the conference tournament, I hit some balls during down time, and was excited to come back.”
“I was shocked at how fast he recovered,” Phillips admits. “Part of it was just how his body reacted to the rehab, but he also worked very hard to get back. So Will, Coach Detwiler, and I discussed him playing in the NCAAs.”
The initial plan was to have Hall only compete in doubles, in order to limit the amount of running he would have to do. But in the week leading up to the tournament, Hall’s leg was feeling strong, and he convinced his coach that he could help the team in singles as well.
Less than two months after losing nearly half his blood on the court at William & Mary, Hall played in Washington and Lee’s NCAA Division III Tournament match against North Carolina Wesleyan. While he struggled in his singles match, dropping a 6-1, 7-5 decision, he and his doubles partner picked up Washington and Lee’s only win of the match–an 8-6 triumph.
“I felt pretty tentative in my singles match at first,” Hall says. “It wasn’t so much the physical side of it. I just hadn’t played a match since the injury. I tried to be more aggressive and shorten the points in the second set, but I came up short.”
“I was just really glad we got Will on the court again doing exactly what he wanted,” Phillips says. “I think he would have performed even better if we had time to build his endurance back up. But playing in the matches really enabled him to feel good about himself and his season.