The not-so-glamorous side of competitive sports

April 1, 2020 — by Anjali Nuggehalli

Crouching over the cold steel bench on the sidelines last November, I knew there was a problem when I couldn’t remember why I was still playing soccer.

I was fed up with being yanked out of games over a mere incomplete pass, and my willpower was drained.

Soccer had been a part of my life since I could walk, and even early on, I relished the feeling of adrenaline pumping through my veins as I dribbled down the field with the ball in my control. I basked in the attention and praise I received for being the best shooter, the best defender, the best player.

I started with recreational soccer, then joined competitive leagues and moved up the ranks to Premier teams. Before I knew it, I was playing on Development Academy, an elite, national level of soccer composed of girls looking to play at colleges like Stanford and Duke. Inevitably, I was no longer the best player. 

Despite the accolades that come with being an elite athlete, it certainly wasn't all glory and success. For the first two years, I had my fair share of ups and downs. One of my first rude awakenings was learning how to deal with the “mean girls” of sports.

Contrary to what I was used to throughout middle and high school, I encountered situations where girls were openly aggressive and ultra competitive. Everything they thought about me, whether it was my skill, my personality or even my appearance, shot out of their mouths and drained my self-confidence. It took me several months to realize the benefit of such open confrontation, contrary to the hushed whispers and social games more typical at school. 

Mean girls aside, however, the most challenging aspect of playing at such an elite level was the constant pressure put on me by my coaches, and the pressure I put on myself. The idea that perfection was unattainable was thrown out the window — perfection wasn’t a choice, it was demanded. Anything less would put you on the bench, or even worse, cut you from the team.

I still remember a game last November when I was defending and two goals were scored against my team in a matter of minutes. My coach immediately pulled me out of the game, making me feel like I disappointed him and I was responsible for the team’s loss.

For weeks, every time I touched the ball, or even took an exam in school, self-doubt played over and over in my mind. Every practice became a make-or-break situation where I had to redeem myself. Not surprisingly, I grew to resent every second of it.

Having cutthroat coaches was nothing new for me and was not limited to just soccer. Athletes participating in any type of competitive sport are likely to endure the hardships of being scrutinized by their coaching staff. 

However, the constant criticism does more than just push athletes to be better — it can result in a plethora of mental issues that could potentially be carried throughout a lifetime. 

Kristin Dieffenbach, assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University, identified the long-term consequences that intense coaching can have on athletes. 

In an interview with Seeker, Dieffenbach said that while being yelled at creates a stronger desire to perform well, it holds athletes back from doing their best in the long run. Athletes become so cautious of getting reprimanded that they cannot fully commit themselves to performing at their 100 percent. 

In my case, I no longer wanted to play well for the sole reason of improving and establishing a starting position. My priority for each game was performing at a level that satisfied my coach. 

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), being frequently yelled at stimulates the amygdala, which results in a release of stress hormones in the bloodstream that cause repetitive negative thoughts. 

So far I’ve been lucky. My racing thoughts of insecurity and failure quieted as time passed and the painful memory of that awful game dulled. I found my confidence, and my sense of belonging gradually built up again. I know that disappointments will inevitably occur again, but I have learned to take it one day at a time. 

I told myself that sports often invoke passion, leading me to be more emotional than I would be in a normal situation. I learned to put less emphasis on the emotions of the moment and instead focus on what I was being told to fix. 

Having faith that I was still growing and learning has also been beneficial to my outlook on the game. I realized that the message I was told repeatedly, “Perfection is the goal,” was just a flawed method to force me to work harder.

Perfection serves as a trap and drains self-esteem when it is made the ultimate goal. However, the goal of sports, or anything in life, should be learning from past mistakes and finding the satisfaction in accomplishing attainable personal goals.

Despite the hardships I’ve faced throughout playing competitive soccer, I would not be the person I am today without it. I’ve developed physical and mental toughness that I would never have learned without being in such an intense environment. 

Playing competitive sports is like going on a rollercoaster — when I’m at its highest point, I feel indestructible. But suddenly, I am careening downwards after a bad game or injury, and only a twist and turn away, I’m back on an upward trajectory, feeling confident about the future.

These ups and downs are not for the faint-hearted, and my time with soccer has made me realize I’m stronger than I ever would have known. I don’t know where this journey will end, but ultimately, I know I’m the one who determines my path.

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