The Internal War of an Elite Athlete

Athletics are 90% mental and 10% physical but athletes only train their physical abilities, they aren’t trained to be mentally tough. We are trained from the beginning to believe that you have to push through everything in order to compete at a high level. Being an elite student-athlete is demanding. It’s exhausting to just get by, let alone succeed. We live in a world where the best don’t rest but aren’t taught the difference between hard work and pushing yourself too far. An athlete is never supposed to appear weak, unless we are physically injured we can’t stop because pain is just weakness leaving the body. No one cares what happened before the game — when you put on that uniform none of it matters because if you don’t perform, you’re letting everyone down. Except no one can see that your brain is injured.


This toxic environment can leave some athletes feeling weak, defeated, and hopeless. It’s difficult to imagine an athlete to struggle with their mental health because they are trained to not show weakness and just shake it off. Unfortunately, you can’t just shake off mental illness and this leaves many athletes to suffer in silence. Sadly, the internal war eats away at someone’s passion. It’s hard to get by as a student-athlete but their love for the game drives them. However, suffering in silence causes you to start dreading the idea of stepping on the court and you just go through the motions. Eventually, you become so exhausted from this internal war, you can’t even function properly. The saddest part of all this is that, for most, athletics used to be an outlet from the issues of everyday life, but somewhere along the way they lost that little kid within them who just loved playing the game.


After years of devoting countless hours to a game you’ve lost your drive to play, and no one understands what you’re fighting within your head. I do have good news for you: that little kid who first fell in love with the game is still within you. If you are struggling, I want to be a sense of hope; you won’t feel like this forever. There is help out there for you. While you can’t be cured of mental illness, there are ways to overcome and manage it to live a happy and fulfilling life. This may mean taking a step away from your sport in order to get your mind back in the right place. I had to do this and have never regretted it.


My junior year of high school I was riding a wave of overwhelming emotions that destroyed my game. I put so much unneeded pressure on myself and I could not perform to my full potential. By the end of the school season, I couldn’t even stand to pick up a volleyball. I dreaded every day in the gym and cried so many tears in the locker room, I lost my passion. This was all because I had a goal to play college volleyball, and at that point, I couldn’t see myself getting there. In the back of my mind, I still had hope that I could get there and I knew that this upcoming club season held the most recruiting opportunities. 


However, after sitting in my mind a couple weeks leading up to club tryouts, I knew I mentally couldn’t do it. Taking a step back from the elite training to take care of my mental health truly took a lot out of me. I spent those six months regaining control of my own life and taking control of my mental illness. Even though I missed the biggest recruiting season, I have no regrets, because, despite everything I went through, I still managed to reach my biggest goal to play college volleyball. Strangely enough, it was because of my club director that I ultimately got that offer. 


I was then able to return to the sport full force for my senior season. On September 4, 2018, everything changed for me as I made my verbal commitment to play college volleyball and a weight was lifted off my shoulders. The next day I returned to school and had yet to tell anyone. I wanted to tell my team all together at practice but things didn’t really work out that way. Long story short, it wasn’t a good practice for whatever reason. I remember that I kept making mistakes and thinking in my head “you’re a college commit now, you have to be better now, you have to really prove that you’re actually good enough.” 


After volleyball practice, I still hadn’t told anyone my good news and I walked across the school to color guard practice. Because of my visit the previous day, I missed learning choreography. It really wasn’t a big deal since I pick up quickly, but my mind was feeling a little more anxious than usual. After learning the choreography, I went in to run the routine with my team. There was this partner toss part where I threw my flag to the wrong person. On a normal day, I would’ve just laughed it off. However, today was different. My mind went fuzzy and everyone talking just sounding like buzzing. I went down to the ground and started hyperventilating. This was my first anxiety attack since my hiatus from volleyball. After a long process of bringing myself back to reality, I explained how I was mentally on this high about my news but the next day made me feel like I wasn’t good enough. Turns out my toxic mindset made me not allow myself to be good enough. 


The next day, I was waiting for the bus to take us to our away game when I received a call from my admissions counselor, who informed me that I was accepted to my college. At the game, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I’m being held to a higher standard now. I was the only one holding myself to a high standard. I was held to a high standard but I held myself to an unreachable high standard and I was not allowing myself to be good enough.


After a year of experiences, I feel that I am in a better place mentally than I’ve ever been. Two years ago I wasn’t sure if I’d ever return to the sport, last year I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to make it at the next level, this year I have regained my passion. 2019 has brought a new mindset: I received the opportunity to play college volleyball for a reason. Even when I struggle, I have to allow myself to be good enough. I’m still living with a mental illness, but I’m learning every day on how to cope with it.


Being a student-athlete is not easy for anyone, the lifestyle could overwhelm anyone. It isn’t any easier for athletes who struggle with a mental illness, especially without the proper support and understanding. If you believe you are struggling: reach out and ask for help, even if you’re not ready to talk about it, at least reach out for support. If you know anyone who may be struggling: don’t just ask them if they are okay, reach out to them and offer your support. Let’s start opening up about these feelings and we can have an honest and stigma-free conversation. Having a mental illness does not make you weak.


4 thoughts on “The Internal War of an Elite Athlete

  1. I really appreciate all you’re doing to break stigmas about mental health with athletes. It seems like with athletes, there is stigma around mental health because one needs to be strong and tough and can’t show any weakness (though correct me if I’m wrong). But in reality, admitting a need for guidance and help is a sign of strength, at least to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a very toxic environment to be in, especially as kids start “elite” training younger and younger. When kids first start playing it’s just for fun but when they really start dedicating themselves they get put in the elite environment that prides itself on winning before your well being. All my content next week is going to be discussing this topic — please read on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so we can continue this discussion 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, it seems like a TON of pressure we’re putting on kids at a younger and younger age. I look forward to reading more next week about the topic of prioritizing winning at the cost of wellbeing. It’s an important topic.


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