I started dancing when I was 5 years old. When you’re a little girl just starting dance class, you’d never imagine that the pretty girls you see on the sidelines of college football games would be anything but happy in their sparkly uniforms with their pom poms. I began struggling with depression and anxiety in high school. The stigma surrounding mental health was heavy back then, so I never talked about it much. When I made the dance team at Washington State University, it truly felt like a dream come true. That is where I actually opened up about my struggles for the first time because I had the chance to circle “YES” when my incoming athlete medical paperwork asked me: “Have you ever felt down, depressed, or hopeless?”. I sat down with the team doctor and we discussed resources that were available to me when the season began, and I did not expect to need them as much as I did.
The art/sport of dance is HIGHLY underestimated in itself. The skill set it takes to compete at the collegiate level takes years of physical training and a very specific skill set, but nothing really prepares you for the mental aspect. It’s true when they say the sport builds you mentally and characteristically --because it does, and I am forever thankful for that. When you go to college and compete in your sport, you are considered a student-athlete. However, I often found myself completely forgetting about the student, and only focusing on the athlete. I shifted my priorities to focus on dance because the pressure to be perfect at practice every day was overwhelming, and I was also holding a leadership position. As dancers, we are known for looking the part and supporting other student-athletes during their games. We pride ourselves in making the art look effortless and cohesive. Our season is usually year-round and there truly is no off-season as a spirit squad member. You are always on and ready to go, there was no time to truly get a break…and maybe that break was just what we needed. For the longest time, my brain was conditioned to believe that if I was resting and not thinking about dance, it meant I didn’t care enough or that I was lazy and unproductive. “Free time” simply did not exist.
I constantly was in and out of our team doctor’s office as soon as she had availability to see me about changing up my anxiety/depression medications. I was getting about 4 hours of sleep every night --my mind racing at the thought of messing up at tomorrow morning’s practice and letting my team/coach down as a leader of the team. I always left the house to be at our 5am practice 30 minutes early to avoid being the one who was late and making our team face punishment conditioning, usually in the form of stadium stairs or sprints on the football field. As leaders, we were expected to always be 100%, all in, all the time, on the field and off the field. Responsibility for every mistake fell on our shoulders, and let me tell you, the weight adds up. As I began to feel the anxiety intensify and deepen into depression, I knew I needed help, but I was terrified of being stripped of my leadership position knowing I still had so much to offer. I did not want to be seen as weak, as somebody who “just couldn’t handle the pressure.” I knew I was not weak, but I also did not want to create more things for my teammates to worry about as they already had so much. I didn’t say anything until it became almost unbearable. I ended up messaging our head athletic trainer after 10pm on a weekday to tell her I wasn’t doing okay. She then called me and conferenced with our team doctor at the time to make sure I was safe.
It is completely possible to be thankful and grateful for an amazing opportunity, but to also struggle and recognize that sometimes the pressure just is too much. YOU are someone’s child, friend, sister/brother, and believe it or not, someone’s inspiration. I am still and always will be learning, growing, evolving, and working toward my future goals. Reaching out will always be a sign of strength and courage, and perfectionism is not the end all be all. I am forever thankful that I was not perfect and that I made mistakes because that is how I learned to be who I am today. Taking a break, resting, and pressing pause allows me to refresh and come back better. What’s the point in looking your best if you don’t feel your best? Is it worth it?
I have retired from dancing and am now on my way to earning my Master of Education degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Springfield College. I plan to become a Certified Mental Performance Consultant, helping artists, athletes, performers, anyone and everyone establish a foundation of healthy skill sets to maximize performance and enjoyment in what they are most passionate about.