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Becca Winton: For the love of the game

I used to read the stories of young athletes that took their own lives and could not understand that type of pain. But now I read these stories and feel like I am reading about myself. For years, sports were my safe place, my outlet. The field was always the place I could find peace, clear my head, and find enjoyment. Field hockey gave me joy and could make any bad day better. That joy and the love of the game was what made me want to play in college. But what do you do when the thing you love most no longer loves you back? Sometime during my junior year, my love for field hockey began to die. For over a year I did not understand why I no longer loved thing I spent years working for and dreaming of. I was left feeling trapped, unable to move forward and unable to find joy in the sport I used to love.

My first year of collegiate field hockey was not without its difficulties. I was a part of the inaugural team at my school and there were many obstacles we faced as a new program. We did not win many games or score many goals, but I loved every minute of it. I loved competing, I loved the challenges, I loved the sore muscles and turf burns, and I loved my team. We had big plans for our second season, but COVID came along and had other plans. My second year as a collegiate athlete saw no games and practices where I had to stay six feet away from my teammates. It was incredibly difficult and frustrating, but small moments of joy made it manageable.

By the time my third year started we had a new coach, practically a brand-new team, and I was going into my second year as a team captain. I was blindly optimistic about our season, expecting to get right back to our goals that we had set at the end of our first season. It did not take long for me to realize I was not prepared for the challenges we would face.

I felt a lot of responsibility as captain of my team. Most of this responsibility was self-imposed, thinking I had a lot to prove. I became obsessed with ensuring the team was succeeding, and lost sight of my love of the game and the joy it was supposed to have in my life. Part of my self-imposed pressure took form because I wanted to hide my faults from my teammates. Throughout my second year of college, I began to feel the effects of depression and anxiety in new ways. I had struggled with my mental health in the past, but this time was different. This time, it wasn’t going away. I didn’t think I could be a good leader if I was depressed and so I tried to push my mental issues aside and focused my energy on my team. My desire to be a good captain quickly turned into an unhealthy obsession and point of great anxiety. I spent most of my days thinking about practices and games, obsessing over how I could be better. I desperately tried to hide my unhappiness from my teammates, not wanting them to know the depth of my own issues. I would push my anxiety deeper into my stomach during practices and wait to be alone to let it out. That method rarely worked, though. For some, anxiety manifests as being withdrawn, for others makes it them ask a lot of questions, but for me it manifests as anger. My anxiety made me incredibly irritable, always on edge. I knew I was frustrating my teammates and lashing out at them, which in turn only made my depression and isolation worse. By the end of season, I was exhausted and had to face the harsh reality that not only had I failed at being a good captain, I also had become a bad teammate. Hearing that my teammates hated me was a blow I was unprepared for.

As I went into my spring semester it became more and more difficult to hide the battles I was facing. My depression was deeper than ever before, and I spent most days convincing myself to stay alive. Before our first day of spring practice, I had a panic attack that left my paralyzed on my bathroom floor. Unable to move I called my school’s crisis line only to eventually hang up so I wouldn’t be late for practice.

I spent most of my spring season searching to feel the joy in playing, but I only felt numb. I went through the motions feeling worthless in my own life and a burden to my team. I was told it was my responsibility to fix our team dynamic. But how could I fix my team when I could not even fix my own mind? I confided in my coach and a few teammates about the pain I was in, but nothing changed. Whenever I tried to communicate about my anxiety or frustration I was told, “don’t be anxious,” and reminded that there was no reason for me to be having a panic attack at practice. When I cried I was told I was being “too emotional” and that I shouldn’t care so much about what my teammates thought of me. I spent most practices fighting off panic attacks.

Between my junior and senior year, I decided to give up my role at being captain, thinking it was the answer to all of my issues. Surprisingly, it wasn't. I struggled on throughout my senior year trying my best to be better at communicating with my teammates and looking for moments of joy through all the frustrations. The anxiety and irritability were still there, and I was constantly searching for remedies and ways to cope. My mind had become my greatest opponent, beating me before I even stepped on the field.

By the end of my senior season, I felt more empty than ever before. I desperately looked for purpose in all the struggles I had faced and found none. The end of season meant the end of field hockey and I was not prepared for the deep hole it would leave in my life. I had no way of coping with the loss of my team and sport. My love/hate relationship with field hockey had come to an end and no one cared.

So often when we talk about mental health and athletes we talk about the importance of rest, the importance of talking about our struggles, but we failed to realize that so many athletes only know how to give 100% of themselves. It's so difficult to be comfortable only giving part of who we are to something. Offering off-days and posting graphics about mental health resources is not solving anything.

I'm not smart enough to know how we can fix the athlete's mental health crisis, but I am smart enough to know that there is more we all can be doing. Athletes should not have to choose between leaving their sport altogether or suffering through it. Athletes should not have to think they have to be perfect in order to be on the field. When someone asks for help, they should be listened to and supported, not ignored.

Over the past few months away from field hockey I’ve spent a lot of time wishing I could go back and fix all my mistakes. I wish I knew how good of a captain and teammate I could’ve been if I was honest with those around me. I wish I knew that the best leaders are the ones that admit their weaknesses. I wish I knew that all it took to be a good teammate was to love. I hope someone else can learn from my mistakes. I hope that no one else has to lose their love of the game.


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