Things I’ve Learned from Playing Sports with Type 1 Diabetes

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Almost all of my fondest childhood memories come from playing organized or recreational or school sports, which I did with my type 1 diabetes for about 10 years.  I think part of what makes those memories so wonderful and triumphant in my mind is the fact that I did it with diabetes and although many had no clue on earth how hard it was to balance, I did, and because I knew, I appreciated and loved every second I had on the field or court.  Looking back on my kid self, I’m kind of proud even, because there were times I felt the effort was not worth it.  Recently, Reyna at Beta Buddies, whose son Joe has type 1 diabetes, wrote an amazing post that brought a lot of my sentiments from playing sports back to life. 

I wanted to share the following for a long time for several reasons.  A) I made some major mistakes I wouldn’t want a young person to live through, B) I want to add to all the existing data out there that you can do it, you can do it, you can do it with type 1 diabetes, and C) I want young people to know that because of diabetes, you can do it better than others because you can use the fact that you have type 1 diabetes as extra motivation that others often lack.  And believe me, motivation to do well takes you further than skill.

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Things that didn’t work for me:

-Playing with blood sugar over 250.  I did this a lot because it felt so important at the time.  Looking back…I really wish I had been smarter.  My parents were always checking on my blood sugar readings to make sure I could play but I would rig the meter by adding saliva to the strip…which wasn’t smart either.

-Playing while feeling low.  Sometimes I’d feel just a little low and know that there would be only a few more minutes until half time or quarter or the end of the game.  So I’d stubbornly wait it out and keep playing (without much energy) and although I never passed out, what if I had?

-Straying from my diabetes “schedule”.  During most of the years I played recreational or organized sports I used injections and the old regular and NPH insulins.  This required I stay on my strict eating schedules.  These days, it works pretty differently but, it doesn’t mean that you can’t figure out what works for you and try to stick to it.  (Obviously this is easier for older children-like teenagers)

-Not preparing in advance.  I had better blood sugars come game time if I prepared the day before.  When I played varsity soccer, I had 2 hour practices every day and weekly games around dinner time.  This meant pre-packing snacks, juice, glucose tablets, extra strips, glucose gel, and back up insulin.  My game was really affected if I didn’t get my mind focused on my daily goals of blood sugar management.  I remember soccer season being tough on my grades in high school because I spent all day making sure I had good blood sugars prior to playing.  Once I played, all the work was totally worthwhile!  Forgetting to pack glucose tablets or juice, pretty much ruined practice since I had to leave the field to hunt down sugar somehow.  Forgetting extra strips and running out of strips in the middle of a game felt like bad luck but was really just me forgetting to prepare.  So it became really important once I realized all this.

-Ignoring injuries and overdosing on painkillers.  During my 10th grade year of varsity soccer, I had major foot arch, knee, shin, and hip pain.  I took about four Advil pills and three Tylenol pills before each practice-all at the same time, every day!  (the insanity of wanting so badly to play).  I should have just spoken up about how bad the pain was instead of trying to mask it.

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Things that did work for me:

Gel candy, I found, is a great way to fix a low quickly on the side lines without having to chew

Testing an hour or two before playing to make sure if I was high, I had time to correct. 

Testing right before playing to make sure if I was under 120, I’d get some peanut butter crackers before starting to play.

-Knowing that because diabetes made it much more complicated for me to play a simple soccer match, I’d put in that much more effort to compensate for any diabetes related setback.  My coaches always told me, “I never have to worry about you giving 100% out there”.

Thinking that I could teach others about diabetes if I tested in front of them, gave insulin in front of them, and explained what I was doing and why I was doing it.  Many of my teammates had a great general grasp of my diabetes.  Once, on the bus before a game, a friend saw me test and remembered that I was 75.  Later on I forgot to get sugar before the game and she must have noticed because she brought me a granola bar and encouraged me to eat it so my blood sugar wouldn’t drop too low during the game.  I thought, “Oh yeah!  I totally forgot!”  It was so nice to have some back up.

-Communicating with my parents and others instead of handling a tough situation alone. Despite being sneaky about a lot of blood sugars, I never wanted to die or come close to it.  So when I was having a major low blood sugar or was unable to lower a high after a few hours, I would tell my parents and explain what I was feeling and what protocol I had followed.  I did fear the possibility of passing out and felt the best thing to do was fill in those near me about the details surrounding my diabetes management leading up to a blood sugar situation.  If I was with friends, I’d explain what they needed to do should something happen to me, including what they might inform a paramedic should it be necessary.  Nothing ever did happen and maybe it’s because I let others in and allowed help when I was in over my head.  There is no shame in asking for help.  Sometimes I didn’t want to ask for help because I wanted to be the tough soccer/softball/basketball player that could take care of herself but knowing I couldn’t ignore the serious realities of type 1 diabetes won over my pride.  In the end, people seemed to respect my asking them for help so I didn’t feel too bad.  And I know my parents were certainly glad I didn’t scare them more than I already did :)

I often wonder how many young athletes out there feel their diabetes is totally blocking their way.  If this is you, feeling this way is normal.  The key is using diabetes as a motivator to try harder than the rest.  A motivator to remember you’re not invincible and want to take care of yourself.  A motivator to do what many others can’t which is not to take the game for granted.  You can be a professional athlete if you play hard and smart with diabetes.  At the very least, you can end up an adult who can reminisce happily and be around to pass on the wisdom and share the love of the game with others.

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4 thoughts on “Things I’ve Learned from Playing Sports with Type 1 Diabetes

  1. Jen

    I loved this post! I played sports year round from the time I was 8, all the way through high school (volleyball, basketball, softball).
    I was determined to not let Diabetes stop me from anything…especially sports.
    I remember planning ahead a lot and never running into any really bad problems. And I really just remember the fun I had.
    I wish I had the same determination today. For some reason, it seems the older I get, the more I let Diabetes stop me from being adventurous.
    Working out as intensely as I used to seems like too much work now-adays, so unfortunately I just don’t do it…ever!
    Your post brough back good memories and is a motivation to get back to my competitive, adventurous self.
    THANKS!!!!

  2. Sysy Post author

    Jen, that’s awesome! I know what you mean about about getting older and just feeling like it all takes too much effort but there is such a big payoff! Thanks for your comment :)

  3. Reyna Maher

    Tears. I already see it in Joe…the 110% given to everything he does. It makes me proud and, to be honest, chisels away at my heart a bit. He already knows that he will have to work harder to achieve…due to “D”…due to life being what it is… “unpredictable”. I told him recently, after a tough hockey tournament where they were matched against the most challenging teams right off the get go…I told him “Joe sometimes you just gotta play the hand you are dealt”…he replied (at 7 years of age mind you) “Just like my diabetes Ma”…

    I love this post. Your wisdom and insight, as always, is appreciated. I am grateful for your shout-out as well. Thank you Sysy.

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