Catching a break
Students find common ground through struggles resulting from sports
March 5, 2020
On the surface, they are stars. They are the popular kids. They exude perfection on and off the field. Every game day, these athletes are expected to be flawless; to play immaculately. Stepping onto the field, they know they are part of something larger than themselves. They don’t play for themselves; they play for the school, for their families, for their coaches and for the generations that came long before them. They know there’s a reputation to uphold. After all, sports are the fabric of public schools.
For the next few weeks, they ignore each and every one of their symptoms. They ignore the months worth of sustained injuries if it means they’ll get a chance to play. They tell themselves it’s nothing major, just another day in the life, a part of the game. Pain is a mentality.
Suck it up.
But where do they draw the line? When do they make time to take care of themselves?
Do they make time for self-care at all?
The vast majority of student athletes have grown up playing sports and are infatuated with the idea of pursuing a sport at the high school level. Obtaining a spot on a school team is often exhilarating, as it is a dream a myriad of students wish to achieve. This sense of accomplishment is a thrill, further encouraging an athlete to continue pursuing the sport.
For student athletes such as junior soccer player Victoria Sibounheuang, playing a sport begins to turn into a foundational component of their lives. Beyond that, athletics tend to become an integral part of how they identify themselves.
“Without soccer, I do not know what I would be doing,” Sibounheuang said. “What I would do with my time, I have no idea. Soccer has taken up so much time and [I’ve] built so many relationships because of it. It’s a really big part of me.”
With this new sense of identity, they feel an additional sense of inclusivity. The public school scene is often hectic and demanding, which is why almost all student athletes choose to pursue a sport the entirety of their four years in high school. Being in a sport gives them a place where they belong, as well as a chance at representation.
“You can see how much a [high school sports team] can change a city,” junior football player Landon Webster said. “I think [our school] is identified by our football team and our athletics [because] we have a lot of good kids; people that are going to represent. They’re willing to work for anything, willing to give everything to prove this is for their city. I think it’s amazing how sports can fuel that. There’s no politics, it’s all just the sport. That alone is enough to fuel a city.”
In a 6A high school, backbreaking expectations infiltrate sports culture. While it is an experience passionate student athletes cherish deeply, committing to a high school sport requires a lot of mental strength. On the field, athletes are often expected to put on personas Whether for their own teammates or their coaches, the fast-paced environment is one that forces athletes to refrain from showcasing their emotions on the field and focus on the task at hand: to prosper.
“I feel like there’s an immense amount of expectation put on me and it is crippling,” senior wrestler and football player Luke Halter said. “Especially in wrestling, it got really bad. I wouldn’t sleep the day of a meet and I wouldn’t sleep the night after a meet.”
To meet coaches’ expectations is one thing, but sometimes, the greater challenge lies in meeting their own expectations. Athletes like junior softball player Madeline Brooks recognize there is an additional pressure, as their spot on the team is never truly secured.
“You definitely have a lot to live up to,” Brooks said. “To keep your varsity spot, you have to be consistent and you have to show every day why you deserve it. It’s a lot of proving yourself and [proving your worth] to others. It’s harder to prove your self-worth on the field to yourself than it is to anyone else.”
Every athlete knows injuries are a perpetual occurrence, an inevitable part of playing sports. However, because athletes are tasked with working toward a goal at all times, they often have no choice but to sideline their pain.
“I’ve suffered through so many [injuries], I can’t even remember,” junior soccer player Joseph Bukassa said. “Starting from freshman year, I suffered a concussion, I had some hip pain, pulled hamstrings [and] a lot of pulled muscles. [It continued] into sophomore year. I had a concussion but I didn’t really know it was a concussion until now. I just thought it was normal. [Later], I learned about the symptoms of it and [now] I’m just like, ‘Wow, I had that,’ but I continued to play.”
Like Bukassa, countless student athletes have sustained years worth of injury and pain, but have either not received proper treatment or simply dealt with the reality that it is “a part of the game.” While it is a truth every athlete is acquainted with, another pain in particular is rarely discussed at the high school level: mental pain.
After a long day of practice, drills and lifting, athletes are left to deal with an unfamiliar aftermath. They sit in isolation, feeling completely detached from their teams as a result of their poor mental states. Sibounheuang recalls her first time experiencing mental issues during her freshman year, shortly after being selected for the varsity soccer team.
“Sports make you feel a spectrum of things, not just injury based,” Sibounheuang said. “My freshman year, this was a really hard environment to come into. I was forced to get out of my comfort zone. I felt so many moments of self-doubt and ‘Am I good enough?’ ‘Can I hang with these people?’ ‘Can I do what they’re asking me to do?’ There were a lot of points where I felt very mistreated. I was really close to quitting soccer [then].”
Coming to terms with reality is often a lengthy journey for a vast majority of athletes. Eventually, though, they learn they are not alone in their struggles, as their fellow teammates tend to relate and sympathize. The concept of awareness and self-care can be difficult to grasp and requires time because a damaging viewpoint still exists in regards toward mental health. The sports environment can be a toxic one, frequently misinterpreting the message of mental illness as a mentality and an excuse.
Athletes, however, take their mental and physical scars and use them as a driving force to further build themselves, believing the unfortunate circumstances can be fuel in achieving greater goals. Junior softball player Erin Bonehill is one of countless student athletes who hold aspirations to pursue their sport at a higher level.
“I [want to] play college softball,” Bonehill said. “I know [that] doing all the hard practices, the conditioning [and] weight-room [workouts] will help me get there. I really love the sport, too, so I feel like the drive to play college softball and the fact that I love it keeps pushing me every year.”
Though athletes are determined to seek out value in the sports they play, it is also imperative for them to prioritize their schoolwork. Their dual roles as students and athletes aid the healing process as they have something to work for, motivating them to find strength despite harsh circumstances.
“I can’t have a failing grade in [a] class because I see that failing grade as me not helping out the team, as me being a liability,” junior baseball and football player Carl Levy said. “Not being able to focus in class would be like me not being able to focus on the field. I feel being in sports [has] taught me [the importance of] determination, [to establish] that drive to be a better student overall.”
Changing the game
Although athletes everywhere are becoming increasingly vocal about the presence of mental illness in sports, the stigma prevails. Student athletes believe it is crucial that further action is taken to protect mental health, especially in the high school environment.
While increasing attention from administration in schools helps, it is essential to create an inviting environment and make students feel supported enough to talk about their issues. It is necessary to remove the negative implications that accompany discussions of mental health, as well as establish a general awareness to fully normalize the topic.
“In sports, you hear [a lot] that you have to be a man, those toxic masculinity types of things,” Bukassa said. “‘You [got to] tough it out, don’t be weak like that,’ ‘What’s wrong with you? You can’t be sad about this, man up. Do something.’ I understand that’s supposed to [make] you tougher, but sometimes if you’re [struggling with] mental illness, you’re going to need to have someone to talk to. At the time, I didn’t really understand mental illness like that. I didn’t understand that I [was struggling], too. [Mental health] was seen as a weakness, [so] that’s what I associated it with.”
Beyond overcoming the stereotype, athletes believe it is essential for coaches and administrators to understand at the end of the day, they are ordinary kids. While sports seasons inevitably come to an end, mental health continues to plague athletes’ minds. The physical and mental health of student athletes must be prioritized.
“In high school, someone might know me as being a football guy or as a wrestler,” Halter said. “But [above] that, they’ll know me [for me]. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. I’ve always tried to downplay those parts of my life, because those things won’t last. There’ll be some day where I’m old and I can’t run and I can’t wrestle or anything. It’s not going to matter then.”