I’ll be honest. I have had second thoughts on publishing this piece. My mind has been telling me “you’ll scare people off” and “they won’t look at you the same way” or that “your struggles pale in comparison to those of real athletes”.
These voices have kept me awake at night, told me I am a failure as a person and spoke into my ear when no one else has. They seem as real as a familiar acquaintance calling out your name from across the hallway at university or a co-worker quickly asking whether they can have a quick word with you before your shift starts.
I can feel their weight even now, typing away surrounded by people, earphones plugged in and my favourite playlist blaring out. My shoulders heavy and posture lowered as if the voices are sitting on my shoulders peering over my back as I write this.
I didn’t ask for these voices to fill my head. Not when I started injuring myself playing football (soccer) in high school, nor now every time I think of stepping onto the baseball diamond. But self-doubt and my insistence on performing to a high standard have created an entry point for them to weasel their way into my head. What happens is usually irrational at best and might be puzzling to see for most bystanders. Anger will consume me, distract me and occasionally find the “self-destruct” button that I thought was hidden.
That “self-destruct” button is different for everyone, sometimes it gets triggered after an extended period of time spent mulling over an issue, sometimes it’s immediacy is startling. I struggle with the latter, where I start swearing, slam my glove into the ground or worse, ignore the voices of comforting teammates in favour of the self-flagellation induced by the loudest voice of all at that moment: the one telling me I am useless and a failure.
Athletes struggle with criticism of all sorts often using it as motivation to do better or, simply, manage to shut it out altogether. But what we often do not see is how they carry themselves after they have failed. Instead, we see the smiling faces of the victors enlarged on TV screens, billboards and advertisements. More often than not they deserve their success, yet what about those that finished 2nd, 3rd or on the losing side of a match? Surely those who were not victorious have these same voices running through their head or, at the very least, are asking themselves, “What did I do wrong?”
Executing your gameplan is an art with many athletes refining their own warm-ups and pre-match rituals. Yet we can only prepare so much, which makes the randomness, the ‘uncontrollables’ within each sport that much more exciting and terrifying at the same time. Professional athletes like David Wright or Ian Desmond have written or divulged that they carry their mistakes home with them after each match, noting how upset they can become in front of their loved ones. And in a sport as unforgiving as baseball the stakes on performing versus not on any given day are already heavily skewed. This is a sport where even the best players fail 7 out of 10 times as batters and starting pitchers often have at least five days to mull over a bad start before receiving another opportunity. Yes, some relief pitchers have the opportunity to atone for mistakes from a previous game even the next day when called upon. Nonetheless, baseball, like so many sports around the world, sees the margin for success as a particularly small one. Small enough, that when I take the mound on any given day, my own margin of error seems to be that much tighter. During a cold, clear baseball practice back in February, I vividly remember the voices being louder than normal. The pressure of applying for the Finnish National Baseball Team the other month was weighing on me. I expected perfection and to act like I deserved the honour of even associating myself with them. My errant throw above the second baseman was the final straw. I swore, became moody and decided punishing myself with ten muddy push-ups on the dewy grass would suffice. But I had to get better. I just had to. Only ever better, because any sign of failure would not be tolerated.
Every consequent cycle of self-doubt and failure of mine is summed up by a line echoed during David Wright’s recent press conference: “The goal was to come back as the player I expected myself to be.” In between matches or competitions many of us will attempt to press the “reset” button. While my unhealthy expectations are never reset, I do manage to see each game as a renewed effort at attaining the standards I hold myself to. There will be time to get better and hone my skills before everything comes to a head once again. Yet with this principle has come the discovery that I cannot always expect to improve and that there will be setbacks.
So time and time again, I stand up on the pitching mound, thoughts racing through my head, everyone’s eyes fixated on the results of my next few motions, and fire the ball towards home plate. In a game of inches, whether the pitch was at the desired location or not will define what the voice has to say next. If I miss my mark and nick the batter, I’ll often be screaming internally. On the other hand, the satisfaction of hearing the dull “whoosh” of the opponents’ bat missing its intended target – my pitch – is a high I would never wish to come down from.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, I am a pitcher and I control the ebb and flow of the game on the baseball diamond for a half an inning at a time. Yet, I am also another human being who struggles to control his emotions and carries within him the baggage of his own self-critical voices.
Some might point to the struggle and taxing nature of my involvement in baseball and say, “So, why even bother playing?” To you, my answer is simple. I love this game, all the intricacies, the moments that can seemingly come from nowhere and then cascade into one enormous sequence of events. They bring out desire and passion that I have rarely felt before. I enjoy seeing the accomplishments of fellow teammates and revelling in their success. I would never trade it away for anything else. So, there; there’s your answer.
Athletes around the world may feel the same way about whichever sports they are involved in. Whether at an amateur level, like the ‘Sunday Football Leagues’ here in the UK, all the way up to the pinnacle of football that is the English Premier League. Whether you are a woman, who has shaped their sport for the past decade, or a young boy looking to make his mark in the game he loves. Quoting NBA All-Star and Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, “Everyone is going through something,” so why stay quiet about the difficulties you face as an athlete involved in sports you are so passionate about?
Mental health has become a subject of much debate over the past few years, yet when I look around I feel alone, as is typical with the symptoms of depression. You wonder where are the voices of athletes worldwide who are no doubt struggling with their own demons. Solidarity is a funny thing and we as athletes want every edge we can have, so how about we speak out and connect with each other. The reassurance that we have each other’s back, that we value their efforts no matter what happens, that they don’t need to bottle up their emotions to the point of isolation or worse.
We are a platform to have athletes far and wide share their stories of mental health, because we believe they deserve and should be heard. Within the lines of each story, you are not seen as weak for sharing something that is considered so personal. You are seen as strong and proud. Let’s end the #StigmaInSports together.
University of East Anglia Blue Sox, Norwich Iceni Baseball Club
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