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Chiara Ma: Reflecting on my Experience in Collegiate Athletics

TW: suicidal ideation and disordered eating


Being removed from Division 1 sport has now given me some time to reflect on the 5 years I was a part of it. I’m very thankful for the once in a lifetime opportunity my family, friends, teammates, coaches, classmates, and teachers allowed me to have. I never would have become the person or player I am today if I hadn’t left home to be a student-athlete in the US. But I have a few things to say before I finally close out that chapter of my life.


Seeing how many college athletes we’ve lost to suicide this past year breaks my heart knowing what it was like to feel so hopeless, alone, and depressed that I didn’t want to live anymore. And to have a sister who once felt the same way too.


I never told anyone I had suicidal thoughts my sophomore year of college until I found and confided in my sport psychologist as a junior. After my third fall season, I hesitantly texted my athletic trainer and I can’t thank her enough for being so open and willing to help because she put me in touch with the therapist who saved my life. And because two years later I felt comfortable enough to reach out to the AT at my next school.


It can be so hard to ask for help when you feel trapped in the bubble of your sport, school, and team. In the unrelenting grind of college sport to win at all costs, you feel suffocated, like there’s no end to the spiraling road to unattainable perfection. You feel burnt out but don’t think you can stop to take a break, like you have no time to ask for help when there’s practice in an hour, homework due at midnight, a game tomorrow that you probably won’t play in, messages from family and friends you haven’t seen or replied to in months, and possibly a tournament next week you’ll miss class for but definitely not play in so will run on the hotel treadmill to make up for. Show up and finish the rep, finish the set, finish the session. You think you have to because this sport feels like it’s your whole world. Because for 20+ hours/week it is.


Immersed in an environment like that, I started to view success and my self-worth as directly related to sport. Being subject to someone else’s assessment of my abilities as to whether I deserved to be treated with respect or considered to play and travel made me feel invisible and powerless. I became so afraid of failure that I was completely and overwhelmingly paralyzed with performance anxiety and grew to dread hearing my coaches call my name to play. I’d ask myself, if they didn’t trust me to participate in drills, then why would I expect them to sub me into games? How could I believe in myself to perform when they hadn’t given me a chance to prove myself in practice the past week? When you feel like you’ve been thrown in the deep end and they’re watching to see if you’ll sink or swim, you won’t want to go anywhere near the water again.


But I’m stubborn as hell and wanted to finish what I moved halfway across the world for. I wanted to make everyone’s hard work to get me there worth it. If I was going to be that far away from my family and friends at home then I was going to make it worthwhile and thought if I worked hard to come back every preseason fitter than the last, things would change. I was hopeful as I am stubborn, but things always stayed the same. So, in my end-of-season meeting junior year, I cried telling my coach I wanted to transfer.


They told me no alumni remembers the number of minutes they played, only the friendships they made, and convinced me to stay. But I couldn’t express to them what minutes meant when they reflected how well you were treated. I was already 3 years into my degree and ultimately didn’t think I knew who I was without field hockey, having gotten so used to it being such a big part of my life, that I was willing to put up with the way things were. I received a great education and met so many amazing people who I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten to know or become lifelong friends with but it was hard trying to not let my label as a reserve define who I was and how I saw myself while starting to resent the sport I loved and which had been such an important part of my identity since I was 6.


Field hockey brought me so much joy and gave me a voice. Regardless of how shy or quiet I was off the field, what I weighed, how short I was, or my race and ethnicity, I could just play. The game itself didn’t care who I was outside the confines of its 60-minute time frame. What had been an outlet and a safe place for me turned toxic when I learned how well you played determined how you’d be treated. Faced with cut throat favoritism every day, I felt like I could never meet someone else’s standard of perfection in order to be given a fair chance to prove myself. No matter what I did on or off the field, I’d never measure up. As a reserve, when you’re instructed to play like your next opponent to help the starters prepare, you’ll want so badly just to be good enough to be allowed to play like yourself. But I hadn’t been trusted to, so I didn't think I could remember how.


I began struggling with disordered eating and body image during my college career and remember one practice in a heavily restrictive phase feeling too weak to make a tackle that I really should’ve. I just didn’t have it in me and my coach addressed the whole team after the drill basically saying if you’re not making tackles, you need to get stronger. Their instruction to simply “be stronger” broke me. I realize they didn’t know I was restricting but I was in such a fragile state that their advice to “try harder” was my last straw and shocked a wave of numbness over me since all I felt like I was doing was trying my hardest just to be good enough to be worth calling the right name, to be seen, appreciated, and treated with the same care as the starters were.


Especially these past two years, it took everything in me not to fall apart in practice and at games. I’d get dressed hours ahead, blast music in my ears, and try to pull myself out of a dark place before faking a smile to make it through the impending session. I buried my emotions to perform my role as the eternally optimistic teammate. I was scared if I let my guard down, I’d feel everything I was using all my energy not to. Therapy was when I could process it all and what helped me finally quit this year for my mental health.


I never wanted anyone to feel how I did so I tried making sure my teammates felt encouraged, confident in themselves, and like they belonged. I hope they felt seen, heard, and happy regardless of how they played because no one should be made to feel less, ever. Let alone for having a bad game, practice, or day. You’re more than your sport and the minutes you get, just like how you’re not your mistakes.


I didn’t think I wanted to revisit any of this, I’m not a part of it anymore after all, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my friends still in it, the young girls who will be, and how they’re going to be treated. I want to share this so no one feels alone or believes that things can’t get better. Because they can, they will, and they have to before we lose any more student-athletes. You don’t have to suffer in silence. Your mental health is and always should be most important. I don’t care if we aren’t friends or I don’t know you, you can talk to me. You deserve to feel safe enough to ask for help. Receiving professional help as well as having a family who listens and friends who taught me to laugh again were how I made it to graduation and through two more seasons than I thought I could. I’m eternally grateful for their patience, for making me feel safe to be my most vulnerable self, and for letting me lean on them when I didn’t think I could stand on my own.


Never in my five years did I feel comfortable enough to ask my coaches for a mental health day, but this doesn’t and shouldn’t have to be the case for anyone else. I wouldn’t change my college athletic experience because I can’t. But, my hope is that everyone feels like they can speak up if they’re struggling and be heard and provided with the mental health resources they need before it’s too late. No one should have to feel like they need to sacrifice their wellbeing for sport or choose it over their education and much-needed rest. You don’t have to feel like you need to be better for your coaches, sport, or school. They have to do better for you to be okay. Because sometimes you won’t be and you’ll need a bit of help to feel like yourself again, but one day you will and you should be here to see it.

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