Vulnerability as an Athlete
I’ve been a student-athlete all my life, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I love the competition, the nerves, the beads of sweat dripping down my face, that moment before the make-or-break play of the game. I take that competitive and intense nature everywhere I go. I have found that being a college athlete comes with the assumption that you are strong all day, every day. This expectation can really take a toll.
Once I entered the college world, I began to see my symptoms of generalized anxiety develop. I had the debilitating nights of no sleep, circling thoughts, heart-pounding - not living my life the way I wanted to - kind of anxiety. In my experience, some athletes tend to downplay their mental illness, when statistically 10-15% of student-athletes have a mental health issue severe enough to warrant counseling. The stigma I perceived always made it tough to speak out or even admit that I was having issues.
How can I be both a confident leader on my team while also struggling with internal battles?
That question was one that plagued me until I sought counseling. I was under the impression that to be strong and tough meant never dealing with my issues or being allowed to feel anything. God, I wish someone had told me that was a load of crap earlier in my life.
Once I started allowing myself to open up about problems to someone whose job was to listen, I felt free. I felt like I was finally able to be a human being, having felt, for years before, pressure to be a machine performing things perfectly. Over time, I started to become more in-tune with my emotions and my mental health really did, for lack of a better term, get better.
For me, the first step to feeling better was to seek support. Although the tactics of seeking help may not be the same for everyone, acknowledging my emotions worked better than internalizing. The first step of recognizing I wanted help was bigger than the act of seeking help itself.
My competitive nature aided in my recovery more than I thought it would. I made lists, plans, and goals to get my mental health where I wanted it to be, and when I met those goals, I was over the moon. Getting praise is something that I always thrived on in my sport, and when I would hit my mental health goals, it was amazing to be able to self-praise. I was proud of myself, and no longer trying to hide my struggles, I was eager to see how far I could get.
In my experience, it’s all about considering who you are as a person and customizing your mental health to your own personality. For example, I’m someone who likes to stay on-the-go, so I fill my daily life with activities I enjoy doing. I like to stay positive, so I gravitate towards the positive people in my life. Once I consciously made these shifts, I started to see a difference.
Another large part of my life has always been journaling. I started realizing that my journals were the only place I ever expressed my real and raw feelings. I started to draw parallels between therapy and journaling and I realized that, in some ways, my journal was my therapist for many years. Those tiny books helped me cope in some of my most difficult moments.
As an athlete, I felt pressure to be a steady and faithful leader, but I found it difficult to admit that. It’s the constant burden to perform and put on a front that hindered my ability to be vulnerable. I am trying to overcome that uncomfortable feeling. I speak out about my mental health in hopes that I can make one less person feel alone. Normalizing speaking about your mental health is a positive step we can and should take together.
One mantra that has helped me is: reevaluate, recharge, and reiterate. What do I mean by this? I sit down and think, hard, about where my life is right at this moment. I think about what I want to change and what I don’t. I make a plan for how I am going to make positive changes. Recharge, meaning I go and take some time for self-care before I start full steam ahead on my plan. And then do it all again if I start to realize I’m not in a great headspace or if I start to feel stagnant.
I have learned that a large part of my identity is being an athlete, but more importantly, I am a human. I am allowed to break, I am allowed to feel, and my feelings are valid. Every single one of them.
Emily Williams is a 2020 Graduate of Jefferson University and is currently the Graphic Designer for Ursinus College Communications. She played softball all four years at Jefferson and runs softball camps with an organization called Sow Good Now, to teach young players about philanthropy. She uses this platform to donate to local mental health organizations. Emily also loves reading, writing poetry, working out, and staying active.