Hay: It's play before pay for many professionals

Sitting in a hospital in Perth reminded me that injuries are the cruellest part of sport.

Often they occur at what feels like the worst possible time. For professional athletes in particular, long-term setbacks are the most difficult mental challenge they will likely face in their career.

Most athletes thrive on the pressure of playing in front of big expectant crowds, as well as the stress of taking care of business on the pitch, court or course. Tell them they have to sit on the sidelines and watch, and that ability to cope is somewhat different.

I know that footballers retain their wage and don't lose out financially when injured, but that is scant consolation. Money is a bonus that comes as a result of all the hard work and sacrifice to get to that level of the sport. Take the cash away, and the love for the game would still be as strong in most players.

The disappointment that permeated many in the nation when the All Whites lost out to Mexico for the 2014 World Cup spot was evident for all to see. Even before those games, fans were gutted by the news inspirational captain Winston Reid was injured. I know that, selfishly, I was concerned because his absence was going to affect the team's ability to win and get to Brazil for the sport's showpiece event. Admittedly, I didn't give much thought to Winston himself, who while putting on a brave face, would have been inconsolable inside.

Having to watch those two matches from his lounge room would have been tough; perhaps the toughest thing he's had to endure as a professional sportsman. There would have been a growing sense of helplessness as the defence he usually marshals got carved up. All he would have wanted was to have been out there and throwing his body on the line for his mates.

If Reid and fellow All Whites Tim Payne and Shane Smeltz need inspiration around their injury woes, they only need to look to the US.

Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots NFL team is well on his way to becoming a hall of fame player. Not long after signing a US$54 million contract extension last year, he broke his forearm so badly that it required four operations.

He also underwent back surgery earlier this year before finally being cleared to play again. Days ago, and only a couple of games back from injury, he tore his ACL and MCL, ending his season.

People talk about mental toughness in sport.

Most revolves around the thought processes that occur just before, or on the playing arena. Injuries such as Gronkowski's are the true test of mental strength for an athlete. Does he have the ability to grind out the rehabilitation and ensure he gets back on the path that was leading him to legendary status?

It is par for the course to expect injuries at some point in a player's career. It still doesn't make it any easier to accept when they occur. The only hope is that when injury does come calling, it isn't at a crucial juncture in a players career.

Oh, if you are wondering why I was sitting in a Perth hospital, my day job at Sacred Heart College bought me over on a cricket tour.

One of our young lads went to take a catch and only succeeded in shattering his little finger.

Being told by the surgeons that they would be surgically wiring everything back together didn't faze him.

What almost bought him to tears was the fact that he couldn't play in the rest of the tournament and beyond. Regardless of the level, it's the love for our sport that drives us to play.

Danny Hay is a former All Whites captain

Sunday Star Times