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  • Katie Ryan

My Story as an Athlete

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

My earliest childhood memories include sports. From playing roller hockey in the driveway, to tackle football in the backyard, I was born a competitor. I have my two older brothers to thank for that. They would strap me in hockey goalie pads and rip slap shots at me, chase me until I couldn't breathe, and practice wrestling moves on me. I loved it.

After trying almost every sport, I was able to narrow it down to three: soccer, basketball, and lacrosse. I played these three sports year-round at the highest club levels. My parents were saints for taking me to countless tryouts, practices and tournaments. I was talented, and I felt such a strong sense of worth in who I was as an athlete. I ended up playing these three sports in high school, but once I realized I wanted to play soccer at the collegiate level, I dropped lacrosse to get more exposure playing soccer in the spring.

I remember feeling so overwhelmed when college coaches began sending out interest letters my sophomore year of high school. I was a kid, and yet I had to start considering where I wanted to go to college? I didn't even know where to begin in terms of processing that kind of decision. I didn't share with anyone how overwhelmed I felt. I kept it bottled up, and I continued doing what I was good at- playing sports. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Fast forward to when I had to start narrowing down schools that were interested in me (and vice versa). Coaches were actually coming to watch me play. Ohhhh, the anxiety that created for me. I remember feeling physically sick before those games. The dizziness, racing heart and nausea were torturous. The pressure that I felt internally to perform at my very best and the fear of letting my parents down were almost unbearable. There were very limited chances in showing my talent. It wasn't "fun" anymore. It was all-or-nothing. Be at your best and get a scholarship, or be a failure. It was that simple. Or that's what it felt like. I never realized how truly unhealthy that mindset was until years later. I wish I had realized it sooner.

I took a few "unofficial" and "official" visits to different schools, and ultimately made the decision to verbally commit to a Division I school my junior year of high school. I don't even specifically remember the moment I committed. I find that strange. It seems like a memory that should stick out-one that is full of pride and joy. Honestly, I think I made the commitment to go there because it was one of my only Division I offers. I remember my mindset being something along the lines of, "Who turns down a Division I offer?" I didn't get to process this decision with anyone really- what I was thinking, what I was feeling, what I was afraid of. I didn't tell my parents. I didn't tell anyone.

My freshman year went fine. Yes, I'm using the word "fine". There were highs and lows. Academically, I did pretty well. Athletically, I did even better. I became a starter as a freshman and earned awards such as "Rookie of the Week" for the conference twice, and "Rookie of the Year" for the team at the end of the season. My roommate became my best friend and I found a sense of camaraderie in my teammates. My coaches were supportive and pushed me to be my best self. I had found success and it still didn't feel.....right. I didn't feel happy. All of the awards and recognition didn't matter anymore. That sense of purpose that I used to feel just wasn't there. I remember thinking to myself, "What is missing?" "What am I doing wrong?"

My sophomore year was a different story. Something had changed in me after that first season. It was like my passion for soccer had completely faded and was now nonexistent. By summertime when I had to train for the upcoming preseason, my heart wasn't in it. I didn't care about being "in shape". I didn't have the motivation to prepare for another season. I remember running at the park up the street from my house a few weeks before preseason, and I had to stop running because I was crying. I couldn't breathe. It's nearly impossible to cry and run at the same time. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. And yet, I didn't tell anyone. I really struggled during preseason. I simply went through the motions without really mentally being there. I began to dread practices. There were times when I would be sitting in my dorm room with my roommate before practice, and she would ask me why I was crying. I didn't even realize I was crying. I cycled between feeling completely numb and profoundly depressed the entire season. I actually counted down the games until the end of the season. I felt so guilty for having that mindset. I felt so trapped and was desperately looking for an exit. But at the same time, it didn't feel like an exit actually existed. Towards the end of the season, my parents and coaches had me see a psychiatrist at the student health center. I don't remember much from my visits with her. I believe she did her best in helping me with the skillset she had, but almost immediately she prescribed me medication, and it felt like we were putting a bandaid on a bullet hole. The priority in the situation felt like getting me back on the soccer field to perform at my best, not to really understand what I needed at the time, and what was best for my mental health. Was there anything more important in life than soccer? Apparently not. At least, it didn't feel like it.

I ultimately made the decision to quit the soccer team after my second season. There was some backlash at first, and the many "You're going to regret this" type of comments, but I knew I needed to advocate for myself. I needed to figure out who I was outside of being an athlete, or I wouldn't survive. I needed to breathe. I transferred to another university and explored my identity outside of being an athlete. I enjoyed activities that I never would have imagined myself becoming involved in, but they helped me understand myself on a much deeper level than sports ever could have. I joined a service sorority, various clubs, and discovered that I wanted to pursue a career in Mental Health.

To this day, I don't regret the decision I made to quit soccer. That decision was burdensome and heartbreaking, absolutely. But, it's also one that I am proud of myself for making. Looking back, I wish I had more resources to help me understand that what I was experiencing wasn't "normal". I wasn't weak for feeling depressed. And yet, as a competitive athlete growing up, I was always taught to "keep pushing". This is so wrong. I wish I had learned awhile ago to listen to my body, to share my thoughts and feelings, to have self-compassion. To understand that feeling "trapped" and "lost" and "alone" were things that I didn't have to experience. I wish I would have told someone.

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