By Hannah de Groot, LPC
“Toughen up.” “There’s no crying in sports.” “Don’t play like a girl.”
These are just a few of the harsh, stigmatizing messages you may have received during your athletic career. While the intent of the phrases might be different, they all share the same bottom line - athletes don’t show emotions; they suck it up and do whatever it takes to win. You are also expected to excel outside of your sport. Not only must you show up as your best for every practice, multiple hours per day, most days of the week, but you also must excel in the classroom. On top of practice and school, you also have to work, complete community service, or manage the other responsibilities of the average student. Your teammates, coaches, peers, teachers, and family are all depending on you. You have to be perfect. If you’re not perfect, you’re letting everyone down.
The pressure on student-athletes
Student-athletes experience insurmountable pressure to perform at the highest level in all areas of life. Pressure, compounded with the whirlwind of emotions that come with sports, can be extremely overwhelming. Struggling to exceed expectations can lead to stress, shame, and humiliation on the inside, and injuries, poor grades, relationship issues, and more on the outside. This is when the inevitable breakdown happens. We’ve seen this first-hand in some of the world’s best athletes, like Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Kevin Love, and Naomi Osaka.
As we enter another school year, stress is unavoidable. Now feels like a good time for an important reminder: You are more than an athlete. You are not defined by your success in your sport or in the classroom. You are important. You are worthy of love, regardless of what you accomplish on the field, on the court, in the pool, or in the gym.
Detangling your worth from your sport
If you’re struggling to detangle your worth from your sport, it may be helpful to do some self-check-ins. Some helpful journal entries could be:
What do you love about your sport?
What do you dislike about your sport?
How do you feel while playing?
How does your sport highlight your values?
Are you having fun?
If this reflection reminds you that you aren’t enjoying your sport and don’t feel good about yourself while playing, it could be impactful to reevaluate your intentions. Consider your values and how they’re showing up in your sport. If your actions aren’t aligning with your values, you probably aren’t performing your best and making the most of your time.
Being a student-athlete is very stressful. Not only is it very time-consuming, but it is also highly stress-inducing. Busy schedules, long school assignments, and exhausting practices are enough to feel overwhelming, not to mention the added pressure of performing your best. Stress can provide some benefits in sports, such as helping athletes stay alert and execute explosive movement. However, while some tension is helpful, allowing it to exceed effective levels can hurt your performance, mental health, and physical health. Symptoms of stress overdrive include muscle tears and strains, avoidable conflict in relationships, fatigue, and unstable moods, to name a few. A cliché that rings true: stress management is key. This includes getting optimal sleep, meeting nutritional needs, and making time to have fun. If these suggestions make your heart rate increase and add to your stress - try not to overthink it. Self-care can be as small as painting your nails or cooking dinner with your family. It can also look like allowing yourself to sleep in on the weekends or making plans with friends. Making time to de-stress is pivotal to your success in your sport, in the classroom, and for your overall wellness.
Remember that you are more than an athlete. Whether your sport is an integral part of your identity or just something to put on your resume, your health and happiness are more important than the points you score or miles you run. You don’t have to fight alone. If you or someone who you know is struggling to extricate your worth and identity from your sport, please reach out to me, a trusted healthcare professional, a loved one, or any of the resources below.
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