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A 3-step plan for a cop to come back from an injury

You expect physical atrophy after a joint surgery; the real problem is the emotional atrophy


Shoulder surgery is all-too-common among middle-aged men. Re-attaining one’s shooting skills can be a challenge.

Photo/Warren Wilson

Article reprinted with permission from Modern Service Weapons

A score of 88% on our state’s generous law enforcement qualification course is not acceptable in my book.

It had been my first attempt that year three months out of my second surgery. I can hardly remember a time when I didn’t shoot a perfect or near-perfect score on a qualification round. However, in a nine-month period, I’d had ulnar nerve surgery on my left elbow and triple surgery on my right shoulder. It is hard to say which was more responsible for the lengthy recovery time that followed: the injuries and subsequent surgeries, or the years of procrastination. Either way, my days of being useful as a real cop were seemingly over.

Physical atrophy is expected after joint surgery (and even in my prime, I was more slight than might), but the real problem for me was the emotional atrophy.

I was under doctor’s orders not to do even a single push-up for at least a year. This meant an automatic failure of the SWAT team’s mandatory P.T. test.

I was a team leader and forced to resign several years before I had planned. At about the same time, I was removed from my primary position as a shift commander and put in a supervisory role over non-sworn personnel. The cumulative effects of these life changes were devastating beyond the physicality.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Fractures well cured make us more strong.” As it turns out, that was the first step in what would become a three-step plan for recovery:

1. Emotional recovery

Anyone using the term “bootstraps” to me during this period may have been met with ire. It just isn’t that simple.

Cops hate to admit they are affected by emotion or even have feelings. In fact, we come up with facetious synonyms for the word so we don’t have to say it.

Recognize that those “feelings” you have of being a diminished version of yourself are temporary and you will overcome them with time.

Most important, accept where you are, but never accept that is where you will always be. Discussing the matter with someone who has been there can be invaluable.

2. Physical recovery

Secondly, when you go into the gym, if possible supplement those horrific physical therapy exercises with exercises not in the program, like cardio, legs and core workouts.

I couldn’t do much upper bodywork outside of the prescribed physical therapy work without experiencing painful setbacks. However, the total systemic progress I got from core and lower bodywork was helpful in my long-term recovery. Others with leg injuries can benefit from upper body workouts.

Just be careful not to get too aggressive with the muscle groups and joints near the injury. If the doctor or physical therapist told you to do dumbbell rows at 25 percent of the weight you were doing before your injury, do that and that only; 50 percent might just buy you a setback.

Don’t try to sneak in some light bench work if you were advised against it. Ask me how I know.

In addition, while in the gym, you may need to ignore those furtive, judgmental glances from “Sven the Grunter” as you do your reps with embarrassingly light weights. His experience is different from yours.

3. Skills recovery


Shooting skills are diminished by injury. How do we get them back?

Photo/Warren Wilson

The last part of the process is regaining your physical shooting skills. Retraining myself did not get the desired results.

At this point, I had lost my shooting fundamentals. I was eye sprinting, jerking the trigger, anticipating recoil and just generally shooting like a newbie.

On the draw stroke, I had begun to instinctively tuck my elbow inward to avoid what had become an all-too-familiar wincing pain, which caused a “fly fishing” motion. In other words, as my elbow naturally tucked inward, the pistol’s muzzle was forced upward making a proper “press-out” impossible. I had to add a correcting motion to my draw stroke to get the gun back on target, which is not good.

I worked on the issue relentlessly. However, even after the pain faded, I couldn’t fully overcome it until I saw the “window drill” technique set forth on Modern Service Weapons by Jerry Jones. You never know when something small like that can make a big difference.

I enrolled in some classes and absorbed all I could, but didn’t make the showing I hoped for. Even the tenure of two decades in law enforcement couldn’t keep me from feeling and acting like a goofy, awkward rookie. Still, it was worth it. The exposure to new training reinvigorated me in both in mind and body.

After several months of slow and consistent work in these three areas, I began to see improvement in spite of the occasional impatience-related setback. In time, I was able to draw and “put rounds on target” at a reasonable speed and my qualification scores became more acceptable.

No matter what the injury, recovery won’t come quickly or easily. Start from the fundamentals and work your way back slowly. I write this nearly two years after the second operation and I’d say my recovery is at about 80 percent. I can see 100 percent from here. The fracture is out of our control; whether or not it is well cured most certainly is.

Warren Wilson is a captain, training commander and rangemaster with the Enid Police Department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team leader, current firearms instructor and writer. He has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 1996.