My experience as an athlete with anxiety

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Illustration of a frightened girl holding a ball and a shadowy figure looming over her.
Learning to put happiness ahead of success is a necessary growing pain. Maple Sukontasukkul / The Peak

By: Maya Beninteso, Peak Associate

For the last five years, I’ve dedicated my life to the sport I fell in love with: netball. I literally stumbled upon the sport on crutches. After sustaining an injury from basketball, I needed to go down to the athletic office to get some ice for my ankle. When I saw the team playing, I left my plastic bag of ice, and crutched my way into the gymnasium. It was similar enough to basketball but instead of dribbling, players had three seconds to move the ball up the court.

The coaches laughed me off when I told them I wanted to play — largely because I was on crutches. But, when I returned not a week later, they were shocked that the girl who had previously stumbled in had a knack for scoring. A mere four months later, I made the provincial team and was thriving; however, like shooting stars, I burned out quickly.

When you’re passionate about a sport, it takes over your entire life. You spend every waking moment thinking about training, getting better, and being on the court. My passion quickly became an obsession. More often than not, I would leave practice crying about whatever tiny mistake I made that day. The reality of the matter was I was experiencing anxiety regarding my sport. 

I was engaging in all or nothing thinking. When you think in absolutes, you convince yourself that if you don’t give your absolute all to accomplish your goal, you’ll never achieve anything. This thinking allows no room for this grey area called “maybe.” Perhaps the reason this manifestation of anxiety is so common among athletes is due to the cutthroat nature of competition. The truth is, there is always someone who is looking to take your spot and that makes it easy to feel expendable. I would often find myself looking at my teammates and thinking, “I will never be as fast as them,” or “I will never make the national team.” 

This anxiety plagued my ability to play, and my joy of playing netball. Practice gradually became something I would dread. The court used to be my happy place — the place where I felt most at home — and to see it slowly become a place that lacked happiness and self-compassion was difficult. 

When the pandemic hit, I honestly thought about quitting for good. It would’ve been easy to quit considering the restrictions didn’t allow for sports to continue anyway. I took the time away to start running and lifting for pleasure, while attending therapy. I was in a great place mentally, and had even noticed a decrease in my anxiety. However, a year and a half later when netball started up again, I was presented with a choice: do I go back, or do I leave it behind? 

I decided to go for one session, with the sole purpose of having fun, and then re-evaluated how I felt. When I shifted my focus to having fun, not only was I smiling the entire time, my performance was even better than before. I was finally getting back to the player I used to be, the player who, without a shadow of a doubt, was in love with her sport.

It won’t work out like this for everyone. I didn’t force myself to get back on the horse right away. Instead, I took the time to get to the root of my anxiety and shift my frame of mind. No one should ever have to feel anxiety when doing something they love. Never be afraid to confront these feelings and take a step back to evaluate what you need to do to try to turn things around. 

Today, I’m still playing netball competitively, but with the mindset of the girl who stumbled in on her first netball practice on crutches: I am here and ready to play. And no one can take that joy away.