Josephine “Jojo” Cotto is a rising junior on the women’s soccer team at the University of Pennsylvania. She first published this story at thesidelinepost.com.
When I was a kid, I didn’t let my mom cut my sandwiches, because I wanted to be a “big girl.” I hated asking teachers to help me with my schoolwork, and I wanted to get my driver’s license as soon as the law would permit. I’ve been Miss Independent ever since I could walk, so it was only natural that this drive and autonomy carried over into my game.
The unwritten but universal code of many sports teaches that self-sufficiency is directly correlated with an individual’s intrinsic strength. I learned that if you want to be the best, you have to do extra training on your own, successfully balance academics and athletics, and keep your cool through it all. The more time I spent playing soccer, the more this standard of control and self-discipline was reinforced into my brain, until it was as integral to my sense of self as my cleat blisters and turf burns.
I never imagined how hard it would be to let go of this detrimental mindset. Confronting this reality was as painful as losing a limb—which funnily enough, was what initiated this whole journey.
I’d dreamed of State Cup Finals since I was ten years old, so you could say I was pretty devastated when I ended it on a stretcher. I tore my ACL before the first half was even up, taken down by a dirty tackle from behind. In an instant, the peak of my high school career was destroyed, but I didn’t take much time to ruminate on the potential long-term consequences of this injury.
Like many athletes, I quickly became addicted to the recovery grind. Following surgery, I compulsively scheduled physical therapy, worked out three times a day, intentionally overate to gain muscle, went on Keto to lose weight, got my tendons scraped every week, and ran the beep test a disgusting number of times. I fell back on my self-sufficient mindset and refused to accept pity or help from anyone — I was going to do it all by myself because I wanted to prove I was strong! Whatever that meant. I was the captain of my destiny; I was in control. I put my head down and powered through my physical and emotional pain, reminding myself that relentless hard work was the foolproof recipe for success. Miss Independent back at it again, this time with a brand new knee. I was physically fit and had a newfound confidence, just in time to start my first season at Penn, my dream school.
Or so I had thought.
Even a year after I tore my ACL for the second time, the memory is as clear and vivid in my mind as it was the moment it happened. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and the heat waves that radiated from the turf left a familiar burning sensation in the bottom of my cleats. It was only a month into the season, and we were ending practice with small-sided scrimmages (my favorite). I was dribbling toward the endline and stepped to fake right and cut inside. That’s when we all heard the notorious “pop.” It couldn’t have been that loud, but by the way my teammates stopped mid stride in disbelief, you’d think it had echoed halfway across Philadelphia. I immediately choked back my panic; I couldn’t even begin to comprehend that my months of pain and struggle wouldn’t give me the happy ending and perfect comeback I was promised. The next day, I showed up to practice in my cleats and gear, ready to play as if everything were normal. Though, it quickly became clear that something was definitely, seriously, tragically wrong.
Following my first tear, I switched straight into recovery mode without skipping a beat. It was likely because I didn’t know the nine months of seemingly endless frustration that lay ahead. But this time, I did. I knew I was back to square one, and probably cried enough to fill a kiddie pool. I cried in the surgeon’s office, leaving the hospital, in the back of Spanish class, in the line for coffee, and all the way to the locker room where my teammates instantly embraced me. It was in that big team hug that I felt okay, even if it was just for a second. I still couldn’t grasp that this was my reality; everything I’d spent the last year working for was reduced to nothing in a matter of seconds. To say I was heartbroken would be an understatement. And no matter how much I ate, there wasn’t any amount of Annie’s Mac ‘n Cheese that could fix this.
One of the most difficult parts about injuries is that you can’t remove yourself from the source of your struggle and pain. My problem was attached to my body, and I was reminded of it with every step I took. Though surgery went well, the next year was filled with more setbacks than I could name. The agonizing swelling would keep me up into the late hours of the night, only to be greeted by severe atrophy in the morning. I torturously spent each practice and game watching my favorite people do my favorite thing, and couldn’t help but think about how far I was falling behind. Being in season meant I spent nearly all hours of the day living and breathing soccer, and therefore, also my injury. I couldn’t escape the negativity, and it quickly transmuted into a hovering anxiety. Over time, the accumulation of these physical and mental complications became intertwined with my identity, making it difficult not to think there must be something inherently wrong with me.
Soccer had been my outlet, my passion, and my opportunity to be with the ball and completely forget the world. Now, it had become an exhausting routine of constantly internalizing my emotions for the sake of appearing “strong” for myself and my teammates, and it was taking a toll on my mental health. I attempted to justify this behavior by telling myself this injury was my own fault, and therefore I shouldn’t distract or burden others with the repercussions. I felt guilty that I was upset. But instead of powering through and trying to do everything on my own again, I knew this time I’d have to make changes to my mindset in order to successfully complete my recovery. Miss Independent or not, I needed help.
During this period, I didn’t have enough muscle mass to be cleared for return to play. This led me to spend copious amounts of time in the weight room with my team’s strength and conditioning coach. Each day before my lift, she would ask me how I felt mentally. In the beginning, I was guarded and frequently lied about how I was feeling, often responding with a shallow “good” or “fine”. Once again, I thought admitting my faults would label me as weak, incompetent, or mentally fragile. For so long, I wanted to believe my own lies so badly; to be the glorified, indestructible athlete that could never be phased by obstacles. I was convinced I was being overly sensitive (a stereotype often feared by women), and continued to gaslight myself as a defense mechanism. But one day, it all became too much. After two years, I decided it took more effort to try to conceal my true feelings than it would to finally open up and talk about them. It was the first time in a long time that I was able to be honest with not only my coach, but with myself.
It was only at this point that I came to realize that self-sufficiency and intrinsic motivation are not synonymous. Though well-intentioned, this culture and mindset often perpetuated by athletics conditioned me to measure my self-worth by the severity of the adversity I could conquer alone. So, I concealed my emotions, and stubbornly constructed a stoic facade to appear invincible as my mental health secretly deteriorated. But sports are emotional. Emotions give us that relentless drive, intrinsic motivation, and unwavering persistence when things get tough. Throughout my second recovery, people would constantly ask, “why don’t you just quit?” Many say that’s what they would have done, or that my time is almost up so what’s the point. And the irony of all of this is that emotions are what keep me going. I would do anything to feel the jitters before a fitness test, the endearment in the locker room, or the exhilaration of scoring even just one more time. So why do we reject our emotions when it comes to mental health?
As athletes, we are often taught that self-sufficiency equals strength, vulnerability is weakness, and to never let the opponent—or even sometimes, your own teammates—catch you when you’re down. But strength is not found in ignoring our pain, shoving it down and pushing forth alone, but rather in confronting our pain, and working with others to grow. Vulnerability does not only mean allowing others to see your flaws and struggles, but also giving yourself permission to validate and accept them. Whether it be in sports or in life, if we as athletes cannot identify and accept our weaknesses, then we will never be able to improve them. Though this requires an intrinsic motivation to seek improvement, it does not require self-sufficiency. In fact, we are more likely to be successful in ameliorating these shortcomings when we utilize our support systems and available resources. Just like soccer, tackling obstacles in regards to mental health is a team effort.
Being honest with ourselves as athletes and a community is a crucial first step in changing the culture of mental health in athletics. For me, writing this piece was a difficult yet necessary step in the right direction. Though it certainly wasn’t always this way, the reason I’m now so open about my struggles with previous injuries, and the impact they had on my mental health, is with the hope that I can help another student-athlete know their experience isn’t isolated. For anyone struggling with an injury, I would encourage you to treat your emotional pain with the same tenderness and care you use to handle your physical pain, as both are essential to a successful recovery. Though I will likely continue to be Miss Independent, it’s important to know she is now accompanied by her friends: vulnerability, honesty, and trust. If I’ve learned anything from this experience, it’s that no matter how hard you try, and no matter how badly you want to, you truly can’t do it alone.