Audrey Denham: My Well-Being is More Important Than My Sport

The lesson I have learned through my career as an athlete is: my personal well-being should not be sacrificed, not even for the sport I love.

Growing up, I never truly understood that my mental health could be sacrificed for my sport. For that matter, I didn’t really think about anything regarding mental health, likely due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. No one I knew talked about mental well-being, especially in the sports realm, so neither did I.

My entire life has revolved around my athletics. Starting at an early age, I began cheering, dancing, playing volleyball, basketball, soccer, field hockey, and more. Whatever sport that you could think of, I played it. I truly never knew a life without sports because every week included some type of event, practice, or game. Even when I wasn’t playing in my own athletic endeavors, I often attended the sporting events of my three older siblings. Needless to say, I can’t think of a time where my mind wasn’t connected to athletics in some way. Even though I found sport as a way to releasing a lot of stress and anxiety, sometimes it was also the source of my anxiety, especially later down the road in my athletic career.

With sports at the center of my life, I often ignored other aspects of myself, including my mental health, physical health, and social life. If I had a sports game on the weekend, I would opt out of doing most things with friends because I was so nervous that I would not perform well if I did anything other than mentally prepare for my sport. When looking at my body compared to non-athlete friends, I felt insecure and ashamed for having “big thighs” or just larger areas of my body from years of lifting and running. On the other hand, looking at myself compared to other athletes made me feel like I wasn’t doing enough or I wasn’t “as good” or “as in shape” versus them.

When I was just 13 years old, I would look in the mirror and over analyze every single part of my body because I thought that being skinny meant that I was in better shape, a better player, and more “well-off” as an athlete. Before every high school season, I would work myself up so much that I would feel sick before practices, as I was so worried about not being in shape or on the same level as other players. I could have fifty different people telling me that I was the best player out there on the field or court, but I would still not believe them.

Don’t get me wrong, I had the time of my life as a high school athlete. But, all those days of worrying, looking down on myself, and consistently comparing myself to others, took away from the experiences I could have had. I was so used to feeling negatively about myself that it became a habit, to the point where I completely believed my own negative thoughts.

Most of the people closest to me didn’t fully understand what I was going through, so how could the outside world (my coaches, teammates, and others) truly help?

I started to feel this way once I entered high school, but the same feeling of not being “good enough” or not feeling worthy in any fashion only continued with me into college.

I entered college and chose to play field hockey at the next level, but now, ignoring my personal well-being really took its toll. I was so consumed with pleasing others in my athletic career that I started to feel insecure and selfish about my own personal needs for my mental health. When I felt the need to share my struggles with others, I felt wrong for the way that I was feeling. I found myself opening up, but being shut down by people I had once trusted. Sometimes, even those within my athletic bubble were the ones who discredited my experiences as an athlete. I began to think that if I continued to talk about my mental health struggles, that I would somehow be less of an athlete.

My anxiety worsened the summer leading up to my freshman year. There were all these added pressures: being on a new team, living in a new place on my own, having to pass fitness tests, and just simply navigating through college as a freshman. I would get so worked up about the little things for my sport, especially fitness tests, that I would constantly talk down to myself, despite knowing how much work I put in during the summer. I would lay in bed almost every night and come to the brink of making myself sick. I just kept telling myself that I would fail or that I would disappoint everyone. I put so much pressure on myself to perform, that I lost who I truly was during the process.

Playing at the next level was supposed to give me joy and great experiences.

“But this happens to every freshman right? I am just overthinking it and exaggerating…”

I spent so many sleepless nights overthinking or crying over my worries and anxiety. I felt completely incompetent and insignificant as an athlete. This time  was one of the lowest points of my life. One of my first away trips as a college athlete, I sat there and cried on our travel bus because I thought, “is this really how I want to feel while playing the sport I love in college?”

“Is it actually worth it?”

I had these feelings for most of my college career.          

There were countless times during my time as a college athlete that made me rethink about the true athlete identity. In my not-so-great moments, I thought that being an athlete was challenging and not worth the struggle. But then, over time, with the help of some teammates and peers, I learned that yes, being an athlete is challenging and not always easy, but that’s what makes it even more worth it.

The values and experiences I have gained have trumped the negative moments of my athletic career. I still sometimes get upset, feel unconfident my body, or get frustrated with myself about my performance; but, I will say that I have learned to ensure that the positive moments and experiences outweigh the negative.

For the longest time, I didn’t know if there was a light at the end of the tunnel, but now I can confidently say that I have found that light in the teammates that were there for me, in my family who listened and acknowledged me, and in exploration of myself to further understand my worth, both inside and outside of sport.

As a college senior now, I look back on these experiences and instances of not feeling worthy or confident. I know now, that my self-worth has NOTHING to do with others and their opinions about my ability and or appearance. I know now, that what I do as an athlete is MY experience and that I have worked hard to get where I am, and I am enough. I still have a lot to learn in my little time left as a collegiate athlete, but what I have gained up until now is a lot more love, confidence, and strength for myself and what I have gone through.