My mental health story: The sport of competition

My mental health story: The sport of competition

My look into anxiety and performance

Early mornings, sore muscles, and the ever-eluding social life—these are all hallmark sacrifices of being an elite athlete.

The commercials with perky music playing in the background and kids and parents waking up early for those cold drives to the rink or gym always make me laugh. Although accurate, they only scratch the surface of what the world of elite sport requires.

Basketball has always been my primary sport. I am the product of two extremely talented and successful athletes, and would like to think I gained the best of both.

I started playing competitively in grade three. I was all legs and arms, but my coordination never seemed to suffer. From there, my career took off. I spent every weekend in a different city and worked my way through the ranks of Basketball Ontario. I was in every development program known to man and I knew that circuit like the back of my hand. Finally, I cracked into Basketball Canada’s program where I landed myself on the list of top shooting guards in the country.

It’s a quick story to tell on paper, and I am sure it resembles a lot of other athletes’ journeys, but what a lot of people didn’t see was the toll that sport took on my mental well-being.

How can someone so physically fit struggle so much with the concept of mental wellness?

My first experience that garnered the realization that I may be battling with more than the average bout of pregame jitters was my decision to read Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open. I got exactly one page in and read the words: “Please let this be over. I’m not ready for it to be over.”

This resonated so decidedly with me. I hated how I felt and I dreaded what I was doing, but I didn’t want to waste my talents while I was young. So, on I trudged.

For a while, I felt like there was nothing I could do. I tolerated the overbearing feelings of nausea and dread during everything from early mornings in the gym to cool downs after games and practices.

I had great teammates, with gifts that carried them to do amazing things in the world of sport, but this did not help me. They lived for the thrill, whereas I was simply thrilled when it was over.

My teammates, however, are what drove me to make a change. In them, I saw the excitement and determination I could feel. I knew I had the potential inside of me to find this, but competition was not the right vehicle for me.

These internal realizations were significant, but they changed nothing.

I was still my only ally because I chose to isolate this problem from those around me.

I single handedly destroyed my support system by keeping them in the dark and, in hindsight, that was senseless. It took me far too long to realize this, but that didn’t matter. The critical element of this recognition was what I chose to do next.

I was raised to never quit—if I made a commitment, I would stick to it. So when this cognizance came halfway through a season, I was at a crossroads. I decided that I would finish the year because, in the long run, I would look back and be proud of the respect I had for my teammates and the respect I had for the game.

Basketball had been my life for over 10 years had given me the opportunity to travel, to understand the value of work ethic, and to make some lifelong friendships, so I decided to use this time to build a repertoire of coping mechanisms.

I started by telling my parents I was struggling and that I would not be pursuing a postsecondary athletics career.

I told them this in the midst of offers from schools being dropped on my doorstep and, at first, they were unsure of my decision. In the span of two minutes, their daughter went from a gifted athlete who lived for sport to a girl who had no idea what she wanted to do with her life.

My parents tried to be okay with my decision, but it was evident to me that they were struggling. How could I not want what they wanted? How could I not choose the same path they chose?

They took the initial blow like one would take a punch—extremely personal.

After the shock of my decision faded, they started to come around.

They began to see the toxic environment I was living in and that I had the potential to be gifted at other things too. They learned about my likes and dislikes, my passions and my gifts. In some weird way, this recognition helped me realize my capabilities as well. This shift was the most important thing that helped me through my final season—I had support.

The backing from my family was monumental, however, it did not fix the issue.

I felt a glimmer of freedom when I finally acknowledged my retirement from competitive sports at the age of 18, but my season wasn’t over and I was determined to see it through.

In light of the fact that I would never give anything less than 100 per cent, I trained every day, just as I would have before.

During these training sessions, I let my mind wander. What did I like? What made me happy? The seemingly endless realm of possibilities was daunting at first, but the more I thought about them, the more I felt my stresses melt away.

For me, it wasn’t daunting being able to choose my path in life; it was exhilarating. This positive frame of mind was not something I had associated with competition before, but I slowly worked it into my regime. I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders and that made competition easier.

I made it through that final season. Our team had tremendous success and I received some personal accolades. It was done. My lifelong journey with performance anxiety, however, had just begun.

I still find myself feeling nauseous before my co-ed non-competitive basketball games, with a grand total of zero spectators and absolutely nothing riding on the team’s triumph.

This anxiety is something I am still battling and will probably never fully liberate myself from.

I miss the game I once loved and I still jump on every opportunity I can to get into the gym. The thought of returning to the court in a competitive capacity is something that dances through my mind every once in awhile.

I am graduating soon and I will be pursuing a postgraduate program somewhere. I have entertained the idea of lacing up my Nike Elites for one last hurrah as a member of their varsity team. This is an idea that I would have laughed at only a few years ago and signals to me some sense of personal growth.

I have taken every opportunity to overcome this barrier; I have read books, talked to people, attempted my own forms of healing, and I think it has helped.

I am not cured, or even where I want to be, but I am making progress and I am proud of the steps that I have taken so far.

What works for me will not work for everyone and that is what makes mental health such a large obstacle to conquer.

My only advice is this: find what you love.

It is a terrifyingly liberating journey that has just as many bumps as it does smooth patches and it will break you down before it builds you back up—but when you get up, you feel invincible and empowered.

You do not need things in your life that don’t make you happy. Yes, you are dealt a hand at birth and there are things we would all like to change that we can’t, but please change the things you have control over.

Seek support, take time to figure out what is best for you, and never forget that we all have many gifts.

Photo by Mariah Bridgeman/The Ontarion.