Some of you know me as Tina, some of you know me as Serb, and some of you know me as that tall tennis girl that’s always in the training room. I am not sure I can put everything into words to summarize the last five years of being a Division I student-athlete. I did not even realize how much I had been dealing with until I met Victoria Garrick last year. I always thought that being in constant pain due to chronic injuries; being anxious before matches; being anxious during my matches; putting too much emphasis on winning and feeling like I disappointed everyone after losing; eating a lot and then not eating enough; being overwhelmed with the whole schedule and not prioritizing myself was normal. I thought it was something that many of us deal with. Then, I realized that this “on edge” feeling is not normal, and we should not be expected to just “deal with it.”
I am from Serbia, a small country five thousand miles away from Idaho State University, a country that has been through war and many other difficulties in the past. Some of you may know it as the place that brought the world 2021 NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic and world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic. I have been playing tennis my whole life and the sport brought me from Serbia to Pocatello, Idaho, to play for a school that I was willing to fight all my injuries for. What makes this university so special is the people and the beautiful campus surrounded by mountains.
I came to Idaho State University in 2016, with two suitcases and four tennis rackets. I loved tennis so much that nothing held me back; even if it meant I would be alone in a country across the Atlantic Ocean. I was beyond excited. I have had a herniated disc since I was fourteen, but I didn’t know how much pain my body could take until I started playing college tennis.
I played at the number one spot in the lineup, which I knew came with a lot of pressure. In tennis, you are all by yourself out there. I never wanted to disappoint my teammates, coaches, or my family. But, that is exactly the problem. I never prioritized my health, I always worried about what others would think if I stepped down.
Throughout my five years, my herniated disc got worse, my left leg would go numb, both of my patellas were constantly hurting, I played with a partially torn rotator cuff in my right shoulder, and I was told I could not play tennis ever again because my pinky had no blood flow in it, which could create a blood clot and put my heart in jeopardy. I know right, how does that even happen?
I spent what seemed like thousands of hours in the training room trying to keep my body together and perform on a high level. It was physically and mentally draining, but in my mind, it was worth it. There were times when I said I was in pain and that I just needed a short break to recover, yet there have also been multiple occasions where my injuries were questioned and where I was told that I am “using it as an excuse when I am losing” by certain individuals. Even though I had support, it still hurt to hear that. I spent my days in the training room trying to get my body right in order to play and help my team. I was constantly pushing through pain, and it still wasn’t enough.
When I was on the court, I was dedicated and I competed to win. Tennis has always been “my life” and my biggest passion. I felt most comfortable on the court. What I did not realize until after I finished my student-athlete career is that I was anxious too. I always perceived it as excitement and normal pre-match nervousness. I often couldn’t sleep at night, or couldn’t eat much on the mornings of matches. I would be shaky, and I would constantly feel like “If I don’t win today, I will disappoint everyone”.
Of course, it did not look like that on the outside. I would still be perceived as a really tall, confident, pretty girl with a strong forehand (a shot in tennis). No one knew what was going through my mind before, during, and after my matches. It was constant internal questioning about whether or not I would be able to get my body through it all.
I was so worried about what everyone else would think of me that I truly think I never performed to my potential. I would constantly think things like: “I have to win this match. What will I feel like if I lose? I want my family to be proud of me winning. I really want to show everyone that I got this What if I lose…no one will care about me as much as they will if I win. I can’t lose. I am supposed to win this. My back hurts but I am not weak, I can’t let my team down.”
But, I never thought about myself and how I felt. My mind was constantly holding me back and making me believe that I would not be worthy if I didn’t win. The matches that I did lose, I either lost because I didn’t play well or because of those thoughts. I would be mentally and physically drained in the middle of my matches, because of the racing thoughts, injuries, pressure, and expectations.
I forgot how to enjoy my sport. I forgot to play for myself and myself only. I was so focused on everyone and everything around me. I had steroid and plasma shots every single year in order to get my body through all the pain I was putting it through. As many athletes do, I took ibuprofen and tylenol every single day for months. I never had time to think about this until I graduated. I am an introvert, so I don’t speak out a lot and keep everything to myself. It wasn’t the shots and the pain during my matches that hurt the most, it was my personal expectations and pain once that competitive adrenaline was gone.
The spring of 2020 was supposed to be my senior year. When COVID-19 hit the world, everything shut down, and I didn’t know what was going to happen or what I was going to do. I couldn’t fly home, as traveling was restricted. I was isolated from my family; I was all alone in Idaho for more than 70 days. All alone and very anxious, I decided to take my fifth year of eligibility to get my master’s degree. Between June 2020 and October 2020, I was isolated eight times, again, completely by myself. That eighth time, I got the COVID-19 virus. I was homesick, anxious, sick, lonely, and tired of everything.
I knew that I could get through anything, as I always do. I was tired of tennis and I was tired of being a student-athlete. I did not enjoy tennis and I did not enjoy anything else. After having COVID, I wanted to be done with competing. I also wasn’t sure if I could get my body through all the pain for another season. However, this time it was both my mind and body. I doubted myself and my capability of being mentally strong. I can only push myself so far. My last season started and I had shooting pain down my leg once again. It was either getting another shot in my back or being done with tennis. Guess what I chose, once again.
Somehow, I found a way to enjoy my last season of college tennis. I got through the season. Key phrase: “got through.” Did I give my all? Yes. Did I have an unforgettable experience? Yes. Did I meet lifelong friends and create lifelong memories as a Bengal? Yes! Do I regret not taking care of my mind and body? Absolutely.
I am sharing this because I know that there are a lot of you out there who are student-athletes and whose identity depends on the sport that you play. I know that you think you have to win in order to be loved, appreciated, respected, and valued, but, I am here to tell you that there is nothing else in this world that is more important than your physical and mental health. You will have a life after your sport and you are so much more than just an athlete. And guess what? People will love you and care about you even if you lose sometimes. Did I have a perfect winning record? Far from it, but I received the Big Sky Conference Outstanding Female Scholar-Athlete award, True Grit Award, and a couple of Big Sky Player of the Week honors throughout my career. Yes, it is great to get these, but I will have to deal with chronic back pain and among other injuries probably for most of my life.
Being a Division I, II, or III student-athlete is not easy. But, I am forever grateful for the opportunities that tennis provided me. I met lifelong friends and teammates, I received my education of two degrees, learned a lot of lessons, experienced ups and downs, cried, laughed, traveled, competed and learned about mental health.
My family, close friends, fellow athletes, athletic trainers, strength coaches, and former academic advisors (you know who you are) helped me get through everything. I have been playing tennis for 15 years and I have sacrificed A LOT. I became independent and I know what I am capable of when I am not on the tennis court. I was worried about how I would feel after I being done with competing, but I have been teaching and coaching tennis all summer and I have enjoyed it more than I ever thought I would. No expectations, no pressure, nothing, and I am playing better than ever, for fun! What’s next? I have no idea.
I decided to use my voice and platform to raise awareness, help my fellow athletes understand the importance of mental health, and continue learning about different ways to help other athletes. I am grateful for the opportunity to be a Hidden Opponent Campus Captain and to support other wonderful organizations that support mental health, such as the Hilinski’s Hope Foundation. I am thankful that our Idaho State University athletes have also had the opportunity to engage, meet, and learn from the people of these respected organizations. We need to speak up and take care of ourselves, together. We are more than just athletes and we deserve to be valued, loved, and respected regardless of our win/loss records, by both ourselves and others.