From the time I started playing coach-pitch, at only 4 years old, I began shaping my identity as an athlete, a tom-boy, and a tough girl, among other things. I dreamed about what it would be like to play sports in college, specifically Division I softball like Jenny Finch, Jessica Mendoza, and other female athletes I had watched on T.V. For many years these aspirations to play for OU, Stanford, or the University of Texas inspired a motivation in me to be the absolute best softball player I could be. Now, on the other side of that achievement, as a retired student-athlete, I can look back on my athletic career and objectively see the rollercoaster of emotion that ran rampant throughout that time in my life. Including how unexpectedly depressing it was for me to sign my letter of intent as an NCAA Division I athlete at a school of my dreams.
There were times when I felt as if I had accomplished everything I had set out to do in my sport. I had already earned both state and national honors as a high school student, I had been a part of teams winning both state and national championships, and I had finally made it to my ultimate goal of verbally committing to play softball in the Big XII. Ironically, it was in the moment that my dream officially came true, that I found myself feeling more lost than I had ever felt accomplished. The overwhelming sensation of confusion and uncertainty was likely related to a number of life changes that were occurring for me, as they occur for practically every other student-athlete. Changes like learning an entire college campus, a new city, new people, and a new way of doing almost everything that comes with living independently, all while dragging through campus with sleep deprivation, muscle fatigue, and an anxiety that comes from being late or wearing the wrong color top to 6am workouts.
However, in addition to all the day to day changes, there was an added sense of emptiness that, I now realize, was primarily related to the loss of the one goal around which I had structured a great deal of everyday life choices including eating and fitness routines, study habits, and hours of daily practicing. Upon becoming a collegiate athlete, I not only fulfilled a lifelong dream, but I simultaneously lost the motivation that was housed in it. I found myself with an emptiness that led me to feel burdened, at times, on “What do I work toward now?” Sure, softball was still going to be a BIG part of my life as a collegiate athlete (bigger than what I even knew at the time), but what would I strive for now that I had “arrived?”
With no goals of playing the sport beyond college, softball had gone from being the most motivating factor in my life to merely a badge to be worn or something one might display to their friends at show-and-tell. Within the first week of my experience as a collegiate athlete, it seems to have felt more like an unfulfilling purchase I had blown my life savings on than the start of something new with exciting opportunities. I felt like I had spent all my energy to get to where I had "arrived" as a student-athlete, but if there's one thing you learn as a collegiate student-athlete, it's that you've never fully arrived. While a life of softball had already taken me through the ringer with its minute margin for error in hitting and pitching, the individual pressures couched in each defensive play, and the repeated experience of failure in the sport as a whole; learning that all my sacrifice had landed me as equal, at best, with 20 other athletes that would simultaneously be fighting for a starting position secretly wreaked havoc on me as a competitor and a perfectionist.
As I think back on the 18-year-old student-athlete version of myself, I recognize now that I could have used some guidance regarding how to navigate the ambiguity of what to do next, the overwhelming nature of a life in college athletics, and the sheer difficulty of maintaining my confidence and self-worth at times when my athletic performance didn’t yield sufficient playing time or meet my standard of success.
To those of you suffering from a lack of energy and motivation, battling the up's and down's of performance anxiety, or other daily struggles of being a student-athlete, don't let these challenges steal away from your life as a student-athlete. Do your future-self a favor and consider the possibility of taking your performance, your coach/teammate relationships, and your overall daily perspectives to new levels by processing through the things that may be holding you back. Start today and work toward making your next year the BEST year!