Pro Runner Jazmine Fray on Mental Health: Ten Things I Wish I Knew

Jazmine Fray, former runner at Texas A&M University, holds NCAA Division 1 titles in the individual 800-meter and the 4×400-meter relay. She is now a professional athlete at Under Armour in Washington, DC, where she is busy training and competing, as well as coaching high school track.  With a strong Catholic faith that was nurtured during her time at Kellenberg Memorial High School in Uniondale, NY, Jazmine’s ultimate happiness comes from her relationship with God, as well as her pursuit of myriad causes – including destigmatizing mental health struggles.  

I run professional track and field for a group called District Track Club that is sponsored by Under Armour. I first started to get into track when I was on a CYO team in sixth grade. It was a very fun experience at first, and I was doing very well at that time. When that ended, I moved onto club track and field, which is definitely more competitive. I participated in a series called the Colgate Women’s Games, where competitors participate in preliminary meets and a semi-finals to determine finalists who will compete at Madison Square Garden for trophies and educational grants. 

It was definitely difficult transitioning to such a competitive program when I was only in seventh grade. There was a lot of pressure on me to perform well every single week, and that is when I started to develop anxiety. There was so much stress at that time and I couldn’t control my negative thinking. These mental health issues stayed with me all through high school and through a big chunk of college. Up until recently, every race I was in brought on a spiral of anxious thoughts which caused me to vomit before and after. I felt alone because everyone else seemed to really like race days, but they made me feel drained, sad, stressed, and nervous. 

Things started to change for the better when my college coaches encouraged me to participate in therapy. My therapist pointed out that it seemed like I was just surviving race days, rather than thriving in any meaningful way. He helped me learn that my race day illnesses were actually serious anxiety attacks. Through regular therapy I slowly learned healthy new coping mechanisms that helped me greatly. Therapy is so important and people need to realize it’s okay to want to work on yourself.

Below are ten things I know now that I wish I knew a long time ago!

Gratitude = Happiness.

I have learned that gratitude is so important for your mental health because it forces you to see the beauty in all things and carries you through a lot of trial and tribulations. It enables you to be your best self because you are looking at every situation in such a positive light. I’ve also learned that it puts you a a really good mood! I wake up every morning and journal about things I am grateful for. At first it was hard to come up with stuff, but as I thought more about it, the practice of gratitude and not taking things for granted became so much more natural to me. 

You are not your sport.

Don’t let your title become a prison. You may run track and field or play lacrosse, soccer, or basketball, but that is not the only thing you have to offer. I understand that when you are training for a sport, you have to give it 110%. But you don’t have to make it your complete identity. You have a lot more to offer as a human being than whatever your sport of choice is. That’s why it’s so important to go to school. Your body will get worn out and injuries happen, but your brain is like a sponge and you can utilize whatever you learn for the rest of your life. Even most pro athletes will retire from their sport by their mid-to-late thirties, so it is important to always fuel your other passions and create an identity that focuses on more than just your athleticism.

Success is not a destination. 

Obviously, we all have goals that we want to achieve in this life we’ve been given. Some goals are huge, others are smaller. I think it is so important to realize that life doesn’t “begin” after you’ve hit a particular goal you’ve set for yourself. Life is what is happening right here, right now. If you wait to enjoy your life until you’ve finally won that race, bought that house, or gotten that dream job, you’re preventing yourself from realizing the beauty and blessings that come to you when you live in the moment. Successfully achieving your goals is definitely a big part of life, but it’s by no means the only part. 

Adversity builds character. 

To me, adversity means constantly adapting to a lot of changes: ups and downs, peaks and valleys. Everyone, especially athletes, needs to realize that we will likely fail more often than we will succeed. I’ve failed so many times, but I still have the courage to get up and try again. That’s really what racing is on the track. I run the 800 meter over and over again, and there are a lot of times when I’ve failed, and a lot of other times when I’ve succeeded. Adversity helps you be the best person you can be and helps develop your emotional intelligence.

Perfection does not exist. 

It’s taken me years to learn that perfection doesn’t exist. No one is perfect and that is a good thing! So often people will try to present a “perfect” version of themselves to the world, but the best way to attract the right people in your life is by showcasing your authentic self. Good people will love you for you.   

Mental health impacts physical health. 

When you are mentally unhealthy, it physically drains you. Think about when people are suffering from depression; they tend to get very tired and can’t get out of bed. It’s a genuine physical reaction. Anxiety caused me to throw up before and after my races. Nothing was wrong with my stomach. But because of my anxiety, my nervous system was so riled up that I literally had to vomit. And, all those nerves were still intact after my race, so I had to vomit then, too. I was battling my body and my mind. That’s why it is so important to find coping mechanisms that work for you. A great coping mechanism I discovered in college and still do to this day is coloring. I have a coloring book with colored pencils that I use before my races. I sit with my headphones on and color – sometimes for hours. People know not to approach me before a race. I used to feel bad about that because I’m the type of person that wants everyone to feel comfortable coming to me. But, I learned through therapy that it is important to protect your mental health by setting boundaries. I need that time before a race to relax, decompress my mind, think about my race strategy, and make sure I have the right positive emotions flowing before my competition. I love using the apps Headspace or Calm before a race because they literally tell me to stop, breathe in, and breathe out. 

No man or woman is an island. 

I think that it’s so key to have a support system that surrounds you and has your best interests at heart. Your support system doesn’t have to be your parents or a family member; it can be a mentor, a coach, a teacher, a tutor, a friend. It’s also so great to have people a little bit older and wiser than you that can guide you through obstacles. I have been blessed to have such amazing mentors in my life who have truly led me to where I am today. They are the same people that helped me build a relationship with God, my ultimate support system! 

It is okay to be scared. 

A lot of people really struggle with being scared and may even deal with spiraling negative thoughts -all of which I can totally relate to. I have realized, though, that the girl on the line next to me is just as nervous as I am. It’s okay to have those feelings -you just have to learn how to harness and control them. Giving in to your worries can make you overly timid and cause you to back off when you should really be pressing the gas and moving forward. High caliber athletes know when they are pushing their bodies too hard, and when they aren’t pushing enough. It’s important to push yourself through your fears and give 110% effort to the things that matter most to you. 

Therapy saves lives. 

Therapy has certainly given me a completely different life than I would have had if I was not encouraged to seek help for my anxiety. I know a lot of people that feel that way. Someone recently asked me, “What do you do in therapy? Why do you think it helps?” Firstly, I’m always so happy to talk about my experience with therapy because I really want to remove the stigma attached to it. Some people think there’s something “wrong with you” if you see a therapist. In reality, everyone in this world could benefit from some level of therapy at some point! It’s okay to want to work on yourself and to try to be the best version of yourself possible. I honestly don’t even think I would still be running track and field without therapy… it has helped me to open up and talk about issues that I didn’t even realize were holding me back. You really figure out your triggers and how to handle them. Patience is critical too -these mental barriers don’t get resolved in a month or two. I am forever grateful to my college coaches for pushing me to embrace therapy. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that after performing really poorly in previous years, I won the NCAA my senior year. I was better able to handle my anxiety thanks to therapy.

God has a plan. 

I am a firm believer that God has a plan for every single person on this planet. God has guided me and led me in so many ways. God sometimes doesn’t give you exactly what you want because He loves you too much. Just because you want something doesn’t mean it is good for you. Even if it is good for you, He may have something even better for you. You might not see it, but He sees it for you there in the future. So you really just have to trust and rely on God’s plan. You still need to work hard and seek out opportunities, but also talk to God on a regular basis and decide if this is something you need to try again, or if God is telling you to move on from it. God is always working through us. I have learned to just relax and fall in love with God’s plan. 

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