Zoe Barrie: Benched & Depressed

It was my sophomore year of college and one of my teammates and I were discussing ways to tear our ACLs. We spent close to 30 minutes discussing the ways in which we would curate a career-ending movement at practice during a scrimmage or drill to perfectly injure ourselves. Would it be in a meticulously calculated fall? Would we have to take a wrong step? Would we enter a tackle irresponsibly? These were the questions we were asking.

Why? Well, because we would have rather dealt with a year-long injury, while still obtaining our education and financial aid, than have to attend practice in a mentally toxic and draining environment with coaches who put us through a perpetual state of anxiety. 

Thankfully, our delusional plan never quite came to fruition. I mean we weren’t necessarily granted the opportunity to do so in a game, since we both spent the majority of our careers on the bench. I, having totaled seven games played in the regular season from 2016 to 2020, didn’t quite get the opportunity to do anything irrational. But, as crazy as this sounds, I can’t think of another way to depict the absolutely and undeniably miserable mental state we were in as student-athletes. 

From a young age, I always knew I was going to play college soccer. In fact, I remember it being something that I never really doubted, as I played alongside a group of truly elite soccer players, who now have gone on to play for the US Women’s National Team. College soccer never felt out of reach and when the time came in high school to begin the recruiting process, I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was a dream come true –college coaches put on their best smile and made sure to tell you how great of a player you were, why their school was the best, and flaunted the amenities that you’d have complete access to as a student-athlete. 

I vividly remember getting so nervous to pick up the phone and talk to a college coach. I’d pace around my childhood room mustering up the courage to call them. I remember feeling absolutely intimidated by them, as they were more than twice my age and held so much power over my future. I was young, new to the world of college athletics, and willing to believe every word they said. 

After six months of taking the process of college recruiting seriously, I picked my future and committed, verbally, to the University of Arizona. I loved the campus environment, they promised me the most money, and I wholeheartedly believed every word they said when they told me I was going to help them “build a legacy” in the PAC-12.

Two years after verbally committing, I stepped foot on campus for preseason in July 2016. I was ready to build that damn legacy, but something felt off. It was the little things that didn’t quite match the message I was given as a 15-year-old high schooler. From the first official day of preseason, I remember blindly getting my jersey and seeing the number 33. As I compared my extremely random, relatively high, and undesirable number (at least in soccer) to those around me, I asked my fellow freshman if they got to choose their number. I noticed that a pattern emerged –the freshmen who were playing on the not-so-random starter’s team all seemed to have chosen their numbers, while those who were placed on the non-starter’s team had been given a random number. 

And as my freshman season went on, the patterns continued and the promises faded. 

I remember begging to understand why I wasn’t playing or getting a chance to prove myself and being told that my “heart rate wasn’t getting high enough” during practice. Having a strong aerobic system, the scrimmages we’d play never quite brought my heart rate up to the coaches’ desired zone. No matter how hard I trained or how much I ran, I couldn’t naturally get my heart rate in the zone that met the coaches’ satisfaction, so I began chugging Red Bulls before practice on top of three to four cups of coffee. This got my heart rate higher, but to no shock, changed nothing other than the health of my heart.

Towards the end of an atrocious season, the coaches began creating the narrative that all of the bench players were “bad apples.” After each of us had received the same promises that weren’t met, we were expected to stay quiet, be the best cheerleaders we could be, and show up every day with a big smile on our faces as if nothing was wrong. Any complaint or expression of disappointment in the trajectory of our careers that we so desperately worked for was seen as negativity and was not tolerated by the coaching staff. Instead, we had to act like nothing was wrong, when in reality, everything was wrong. 

Prior to our final game of the season, the team was split up into three groups. One of the groups was comprised of the starters, the second group was made up of the girls who would see 15 to 20 minutes a game, and the final group was made up of the girls who were benched for the majority of the season. I, having seen 13 minutes of playing time in our 22-game season, was included in this group. We were placed on the opposite side of the field, in the very corner, far away from the rest of the team. I was later told by one of my teammates that one of the coaches pulled aside his group to say something. He pointed over at us, the bench players, and told his group not to associate with us, as we were not good people to hang around. 

I was losing grip of everything I had worked so hard for, and after a few years of my parents respecting my request that they don’t get involved with my college coaches, they came to my rescue. As an 18-year-old, in dire need of help from my mom and dad, I was beginning to believe the narratives my coaches created. Narratives that this environment was just a product of being in a competitive conference, the girls who were unhappy with their situations were bad apples, and “if there was truly a problem, we would be losing more games.” Despite maintaining a 4.0 GPA, showing up on time to training, working my ass off, and constantly trying to make do with my spiraling situation, my coach told my parents over the phone that I was hanging out with the wrong crowd (ahem, the bench players) and was “going down a bad path”. My parents, knowing my character remained the same, my grades were phenomenal, and my motivation was still alive, defended my character and questioned my coach. He backed away from his attempt to gaslight me, and gave me “another chance.”

Thinking my freshman year was an anomaly and things would be different my sophomore year, I did everything in my power to show that I was eager to play the following season. I saw the sports psychologist, practiced more on the side, shut out the girls I was told were “bad apples” (as crazy as it sounds), and made it my goal to hold a 4.0 GPA for the rest of college. I did everything in my power to prove myself worthy and take back control over my life and soccer career. 

As sophomore year preseason approached, the same patterns emerged and nothing changed. 

Following another personally unsuccessful season, making an appearance, this time, in zero regular-season games (a personal record!), my coach sat me down at the end of the season and told me that if I stayed for my last two years of college, I most likely wouldn’t play. He was certain of this. 

There was one elephant in the room that neither of us addressed. In my National Letter of Intent, I had thankfully asked to be promised my scholarship for four years total, instead of year-by-year. This meant that no matter what, as long as I was a member of the team and with no true reason to kick me off, the program was obligated to pay my scholarship until I graduated.

With no prior knowledge or insight into the world of college athletics, I look back on this detail and am forever grateful for demanding my worth in monetary value before committing. However, this also meant I would have to make a decision to stay in my undesirable situation or transfer. I had the chance to potentially start over at a new school, where I probably wouldn’t receive a scholarship as significant, I would potentially lose out on many of my earned school credits, I’d most likely have to switch my major, I’d have to move and make new friends, and on top of all of that, I would have to try and prove myself all over again to a new coach, who might not even be better. 

I chose to stay. I didn’t want to transfer as nothing was guaranteed and I was determined to be a student-athlete all four years, no matter what. Plus, if we’re being honest, I was determined to stick it to my coaches. After all, they gave me empty promises, and for that, they were going to pay. Quite literally pay for my education.

So why am I sharing this? It has been just over two years now since my soccer career ended at the University of Arizona and I have had time to breathe. In the moment, I was in full survival mode. I had one goal of finishing and making it out alive, but I am still trying to learn how to live in this world outside of athletics two years later. I can now only advocate for those in similar situations and hope that the generations that follow don’t tolerate toxic programs fostered by coaches.

I look back on my career with confusion. I am disappointed. From a young age, I dreamt of what college sports would be, and my experiences were everything I didn’t want them to be. I look at those around me who played and I wonder to myself, what if? However, I don’t want to be that person who victimizes herself. I am not writing this for your pity or to give you my sob story. Instead, I want to shed a light on what happens behind the scenes. I don’t expect you to understand what my experience was like because you have never been me. Just like I will never understand what it is like to be someone with a great college athletics experience. But let me make this clear – just because I will never understand what it is like to be them, it doesn’t mean their story or experience isn’t valid. At the end of the day, all I can do is listen and let those around me be heard.

However, I do look back and I think to myself, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” This sounds crazy, but it’s true –I am proud of myself. I learned so much about who I am as a person while enduring the few highs and many lows of my career. I finished with a 3.97 GPA, which wasn’t the 4.0 GPA I had promised myself (I like to tell myself the minus .03 adds character), but it was enough to prove to myself that I can conquer the things I do have control over. I reached a career-high of playing in, a record high of three games my senior season (lol). I made great friends and connections with people of all backgrounds and stories, all of whom I will forever cherish. Plus, I successfully achieved my goal of making it through all four years.

I also learned that those in power positions aren’t necessarily always leaders. I learned that in the most dismal times, it is possible to find joy and humor. I learned to be kind to others because you never truly know their story, what they’ve gone through or what they’re going through. I also learned that we all have our own stories and we must create our own paths. I learned that vulnerability is a beautiful thing. 

And each student-athlete has their own story. I wouldn’t change a thing because my experience has provided me the opportunity to learn. It has provided me the chance to be vulnerable and share what I went through, with the hope to provide comfort and a safe space for those who might feel alone.  

As we reach a turbulent time in society, we are seeing the mental health crisis in the NCAA and NAIA in full swing. And although it shouldn’t have to take rising suicide rates to prove there is an issue, action must take place. Whether it be asking for anonymous feedback at the end of each season from student-athletes or confidential weekly mental health checks with support staff, athletes need to feel heard, but also safe. I remember that feeling of terror in knowing that whatever I said to anyone in the athletic department would make its way to my coach and my scholarship would be revoked because I was being “too negative”.

Athletic directors also need to listen to the cries of student-athletes, hold coaches accountable, and pay attention to transfer rates. They need to prioritize the well-being of student-athletes, because contrary to the popular saying in athletics of “student first, athlete second,” it should always be human first. After years of complaints from the women’s soccer team at the University of Arizona, no one ever listened. 

After my four years at Arizona, I saw a total of 25 girls transfer or quit. After experiencing, then witnessing the patterns, I knew from day one of preseason, who would get benched and would never get an opportunity to prove herself. It was never a doubt that each girl was good. In fact, they were all good at soccer. After all, they wouldn’t have made it to the college level if they weren’t good. But something happened to these girls, including myself. At the start, on day one, they were good but tense. They were nervous about messing up. I witnessed every player on the team, starters and bench players, mess up. Messing up is inevitable. But, the girls with longer leashes, had opportunities to mess up and get another chance, while the girls who the coaches knew from day one would never play, had the shortest leashes. And the second they made a wrong pass, or missed a tackle, or boggled a shot, their opportunity vanished completely. And by the end of the season, they were no longer the player they came in as. And the player they were at the end of the season, in their lowest of lows, was the player our coach would bring up in their end-of-the-season meeting to force them out. 

Their confidence was gone, their mental health was lacking, and they were unhappy. After all, I have never met someone who could perform their best without complete confidence and a healthy mind. 

At the end of the day, I understand that the NCAA is a business. I understand that college athletics are competitive and not for the faint of heart. But I beg and demand that we create and foster an environment that doesn’t jeopardize the mental well-being of student-athletes –a space where athletes enjoy going to practice and games, continue loving their sport, and don’t want to tear their ACLs on purpose.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. M. Herman says:

    Wow! Thank you Zoe for sharing your story! I am crying. This has to change! How? My daughter is so similar but decided to leave her SEC school, transfer, start anew; but with no confidence, lost credits and an eating disorder. Coaches should be held accountable and they should have limited access to the transfer portal; they need to build the team they have not rely on the portal to build their program… I could go on and on; but thank you, this was brave and much needed! Best of luck to you and keep on fighting for these student athletes!

  2. Andrew says:

    Did this story only come out after Amato got fired at Florida? Saw numerous players at AZ and FLA on both sides of toxic vs non-toxic. What were your fitness test scores?

    1. Chris says:

      I can’t speak of what your coaches said to you or your experience, nor do I want to take anything away from what you experienced. But no coach should ever make any promise of playing time, if they do that it should be a red flag to any recruit. Playing time is earned, the only promise should be an opportunity to be on a team where every practice, weight session, video session is your “opportunity”. If in those opportunities you prove to be someone that can help the team on the field then you have taken advantage of your opportunities. If there happen to be people on the team who can better help the team on the field that is ok. I think we see the experience had directly related to the playing time by a student athlete. Most college athletes were the best of the best before arriving to college. For those who go to a big time program, they find themselves for the first time ever on the outside looking in. Especially when college rosters in most sports cary 3x as many players that play at one time. Too many young athletes forget when choosing a program how much they love the sport they are playing, they love it because they love getting to play. Too many get caught up in the name of the school or the conference or even division, they go somewhere they just aren’t good enough to play and then have a bad experience because they are at to high of a level that they can not compete at.

      1. Mh says:

        You are missing her point, Chris. Yes – no coach promises playing time and you should love the sport and try hard. She’s really saying, things are predetermined and although we’d like to think you can earn your way onto the lineup, those opportunities are almost non-existent when a coach/coaching staff believes they are right. The “chance to prove yourself” puts young student athletes in a state of constant anxiety but is farce because that chance is never really there. I love her outlook though because she said she’s taken the negatives and has learn from this. Many athletes in this position may not make it through this time without severe confidence issues, or worse, severe mental health issues. Before anyone says they sign up for this, girls as early as 14 or 15 years old make verbal commitments to colleges (or at least did proper to NCAA recruiting rule changes) after being heavily recruited and woo’d with promises made. This piece depicted the side of things you don’t see after the NCAA tournament or season is over. And kudos for her pointing out that coaches have a job to win and coach, but not all of them are leaders….or even good people for that matter. Athletes competing at elite levels were told at young ages to trust and follow whatever coaches directed them to do. If players challenge this, they are labeled as bad apples or have a me vs we mentality. We tend to deify coaches, but they don’t always have the best interests of the athletes in mind. We have to remember that and teach younger athletes to balance a coaches directives with what they need.

  3. Sara Ray says:

    Zoe,
    Thank you for having the courage to speak out. Our daughter plays softball at an ACC school and unfortunately, this is also her story. The AD’s, school administrators and sports psychologist have all REPEATADLY been contacted over and over by girls and their families. This is not about playing time. This is about treating people with common decency and not perpetuating a toxic and bullying environment. The softball program at my daughter’s school has very high transfer rates — doesn’t matter. Transfer after transfer, these girls are suffering and a lot of them are on anti-depressants/anxiety medicine and NOTHING has been done to stop the cycle. No unanimous surveys, nothing is in place to ensure coaches are not verbally abusing these athletes. These girls are terrified of the coaches and the consequences of speaking out.

    Zoe, sometimes good things happen from bad and I believe that is your purpose. Keep sharing your story because it brings light to those in darkness and maybe somewhere an athletic director or administrator will read your story and will ask themselves if they are supporting and helping the student athletes and maybe, they will do the right thing. Maybe an athlete on the brink of breaking reads your story and has hope <3.
    Thank you!
    – Sara

  4. Anonymous says:

    How is her mental health now? Is she well? She seems it, with perspective and maturity. But even years later she’s given considerable time and calculation to place 100% of the burden of her experience on anyone other than herself, so I’m not sure she is well. After searching for all the ways her coach is a monster, I am left with a few dilemmas:

    1. Is this young woman speaking for every member of the team, coaching staff and support staff from 2016-2019?
    2. Throughout the recruiting process, were there any conversations of the expectations to be a member of a Div 1 soccer team? What’s asked of you in exchange for a scholarship? Was she completely railroaded upon arrival to campus?
    3. Are metrics useful in providing feedback? Could the plethora of data gathered through heart rate monitors be just one illustration why one player is performing better than another?
    4. What purpose would a coach have to ostracize a group of players? Of all her hours and hours of interaction, what motivated the coach?
    5. Is open communication with the parents of a college soccer player common place? Did her professors also call home? Her RA?
    6. Would she prefer less honest communication about her lack of playing time and no choice to remain on the team?
    7. Does a coach not have a choice each year who’s on the roster? Why would the coach not have cut her loose?
    8. With her claim to help future generations, will she be alleviating the problem of playing time for all? Won’t every team, every sport, til the end of time, grapple with the tough decision of who plays and who doesn’t? Who’s time on the field should she have had instead? Only 11 play at one time, would it be best to select the self proclaimed “here out of spite” player over everyone else?
    9. Averaging 5-6 players a year that transferred, wouldn’t that account for the bottom, small portion of a roster who weren’t playing? I’m no mathematical wiz so I need help. 28ish on a roster. 11 start. 6 more likely contribute significantly throughout the season. 4 more injured unable to contribute. 2 more goalkeepers. And then the remainder, who if soccer was something they yearned for would transfer so they could play. Does my math check out?
    10. Has the “real world” shown itself to resemble her college experience? One she wouldn’t trade and is proud of. Does she earn a salary even if the expectations of the job are not met? Does a boss allow her to choose to stay employed? Is she given an abundance of resources, equipment, food etc. regardless of her production? Is there a line of willing, eager, and better candidates waiting behind her?

    1. Robert says:

      The fact that you spent time writing 500 words to invalidate this young woman’s story leaves me questioning your mental state, sir. Also hiding behind anonymity? Give me a break! It sounds like you’ve never played a Division I sport, yet you have such a strong opinion. She never deliberately stated that her coach was a monster, yet you drew that conclusion yourself…HA!

      1. Michael says:

        I stated no opinion, just questions.
        Feel free to respond with answers.
        My conclusion is that she has a very obvious agenda.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Zoe,

    My daughter sent this to me and said she can’t read it straight through yet without getting emotional because you capture her feelings so accurately that this could have been written by her for a different sport. I applaud you for writing this article. It captures so much.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly that some coaches are just not good leaders and there doesn’t seem to be anyone holding them accountable to leadership standards. I’ll add another layer of this because I there’s a difference between women and men’s sports that come into play here – it does come down to compensation and budget for coaching staff. We’ve got the bare-minimum wages for coaching staff for women’s sports (for some those who will say women’s sports don’t bring in money, that’s besides the point I’m making) and that bare minimum will either attract coaches who love the sport and doesn’t want to do anything else with their life versus coaches who enjoy the sport and can’t do anything else because they don’t have any other viable options. Teams are lucky to get the former, and toxicity breeds with the latter.

    Then there are some SEC teams when coaches make more than private equity backed CEOs – their teams are their business. The dollars coming in the door incent school administrators to look the other way with toxic patterns of coaches. Look at Maryland’s football team around 5 years ago where an athlete died from that culture.

    There are many many coaches that do an amazing job at leading and inspiring teams. But we need to recognize there is a spectrum. On side of that spectrum – the college athletic experience that is the dream of all athletes, on the other toxicity and mental health deterioration.

    The question I have for athletic directors and the NCAA for the sake of future are:

    1) what are the obligations to the student athletes from the coaching staff and uni?
    2) how do we know if a coaching staff is performing? It is just wins? Is it number of transfers? Some type of athlete net promoter score?
    3) how are athletes mental health being monitored and what is the administration’s responsibility here? Distributing books or videos isn’t an effective method to achieve improved outcomes
    4) if it is determined that a toxic environment is occurring for some members but not all members of a team – is that handled differently?
    5) in the professional landscape there are rules against retaliation for reporting offenses – how is it even possible to identify evidence of retaliation?

    Thanks again, Zoe. I truly appreciate your voice.

  6. Abuela says:

    Wow, Zoe, this is the story of my granddaughter and it must be the story of thousands of young athletes who after years of sacrifices get to college full of dreams and hopes, looking forward to the rewards of those years. Thank you for putting into words what I kept asking my daughter, as the parent, and my granddaughter to do: exposing couches for what they are and what they’re doing. The internet should be overloaded with stories like yours from former student athletes, maybe then something will be done.

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