Volleyball. Somewhere in my mind told me that I needed this to breathe and I needed to breathe to survive. I have been playing this sport since the age of five, and competed in who knows how many games in my career. Which is why I was so confused how something that I loved so much was suffocating the life out of me forcing myself to struggle to break free from the bruising grip of my own fear, I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly I was afraid of, how I got here, why this was happening, and when would it get better. To this day I still have no clue, why I had, and sometimes still have this pit in my stomach right before a game that tells me everything is not going to be okay. A fight or flight reflex that is telling me to run instead of embrace the challenge in front of me. An irrational belief that I will crash and burn and it’s completely out of my hands, all these thoughts would happen before those very hands even touched a ball, and before the ref even blew the whistle.
“It is rarely the external situation that causes stress, but rather the way the athlete’s self-talk describes the situation that creates feeling of stress, anxiety and fear.”
Over the years people would say things like “its the sophomore slump” or “maybe your just afraid to get hurt again” “you put to much pressure on your self” “you don’t have anything to be afraid of” and yes maybe all of these things are true, but maybe all of them are not. I don’t know how or when my brain started experiencing these little glitches. Probably when I’m older and retire from this sport I’ll figure it out or maybe I never will. Performance anxiety is something I never thought I would struggle with. Back when I was slightly younger I craved competing, needed it like I needed air, I never experienced the “butterflies” everyone always talked about having before a game, never questioned myself, and never thought that one day I might… And although I’m in a way much better place now than I was two years ago, this old problem, this bad seed in my head, although now rare, still overtakes me from time to time. Maybe I thought it was gone because I felt fine last year, but then again I didn’t play last year, I barely touched a ball for three months, I took a mental and physical vacation from volleyball. I sat in a chair on the beach, coconut in hand, watched the waves crash and pull from the shore as my team played in the water. But now I’m back in the water, and although I’m a strong swimmer, sometimes I still get stuck in a riptide and its a struggle to break free. You can see it on my face, you can see it in the way I twirl my thumbs in time outs, when I close my eyes during the national anthem, when I pick at my finger tape piece by piece. That doubt, thankfully not nearly as strong as my sophomore year, is almost its own person, that creeps up on me and grabs me by the throat. I’ve learned to deal with it, and try my best to hide it when it comes.
“Why can’t you just snap out of it or think differently?” A question I ask myself every time it happens. Imagine breaking your wrist, you can’t just shake it a few times and expect it to feel better, nor can you think the pain away. It’s broken, not just hurt, and it will take time to heal. Your body first needs to get rid of the dead tissue, form cartilage, realign the bone and then reform the cartilage in-between the gap into hard bone. My wrist is now healed but I still need to rehab it. Changing the way your mind thinks and works, isn’t simple. For someone like me that’s usually happy go lucky and extremely optimistic, it confuses me how my mind can just shut off sometimes. What I have found helps me through this the most is taking baby steps. When I start to feel it I try not to use all for nothing words like “I will” or “I have to”, instead words like “I believe I can” and “I will try” releases the self pressure that holds my mind hostage. My screen saver on my iPad reads “Do your best and then let go.” forcing myself to read it every time I open my iPad before a game. Reminding me to tell myself to just do my best, whatever my best is for that night, and then just let it go when all is said and done, not think about it and move on.
How does one cope with anxiety? Deep breathes help a lot. Just 10 seconds every couple hours. Being anxious all the time makes you forget to just do something as simple as breathe, but your body needs oxygen. There are things in life that you just can’t control. Whether on your side of the court or the other side of the net. I can’t control if my opponent has a wicked serve that forces us to have only one hitting option. I can’t help if a team scouted me very well, takes away all my shots, and puts diggers in all open areas of the court, sometimes thats going to happen, sometimes I’m not always going to score, and I’m learning to tell myself that, that is fine, that this isn’t the game I’m going to get 47 kills off of 50 attempts with zero errors, but I can do my best in other areas on the court. Also try to laugh and fight negative thoughts with a positive attitude.
Writing things like this is hard, especially when you’re in the middle of season. You don’t want people to think your crazy or depressed or whatever else people may think of. But the amount of players, as of late that have been going through similar situations like mine, or depression and much more, is increasing every year, and most of us keep it to ourselves. Why? What is so wrong about talking about mental illness? It doesn’t make you crazy, and it isn’t a cry for attention, its something that isn’t a visible injury but can be more crippling than any grade 3 ankle sprain. I talk about it all the time, with friends, teammates, family and my psychiatrist. I’m not alone in how I feel, no one is. Being around a sport 24/7 that can sometimes bring so much terror in my life is difficult, but I’m thankful that in those 24 hours and seven days, I’m almost always surrounded by people that support me and care for me. That can talk to me about my brain and strongly encourage me to write things like this. I owe my team and coaches for everything they have done for me since I’ve arrived on the 40 acres. Without the constant warmth that surrounds them, I don’t know if I would have ever found love for this game again.
I’m giving to give myself permission to be care free, even when my head tries to give me reasons not to be. I love this sport with all my heart and refuse to let that love I have be taken from me. Things always get better with time. Speaking from first hand experience. Just be patient.