Change. A word that so many shutter at when hearing, when in reality that word holds so much power and meaning behind it.
I have always loved planning, knowing exactly what my life plan was, and being in full control of my surroundings. So when my junior year of college was not going according to the plan that 17-year-old me had envisioned, I was terrified. The game plan was simple: commit to college, play on the basketball team for 4 years, then enter the master’s program and become the graduate assistant for the team during that 5th year. Unfortunately, my plan was turned upside down, my love for basketball would fade, and my sense of control would feel like it was slipping right through my fingers.
Basketball was always my escape when things got rough. My freshman year, I was always in the gym. But the escape I once had quickly diminished.
During my junior year, I started to dread basketball. The sport that I once loved and would put my life on the line for soon became something that would no longer satisfy me and became something that I was scared of. I didn’t realize how bad my mental health and state of mind were getting because I was fooling everyone, including myself. I thought that my anxiety would disappear if I just ignored it. Little did I know that living like this would create a monster inside of me. There would be days I would break down over the simplest things, days I would have panic attacks before film sessions because I was terrified to see myself on the screen.
We as athletes are told to man up and that if you can’t handle the pressure of college athletics, then it is not for you. The pressure wasn’t the problem for me, the problem was that I felt unsupported, unheard, and most importantly misunderstood.
I vividly remember one of the first games during my junior year, I had called a play out to run for me to get a three and missed the basket entirely. I did not sleep for the next 3 days after that miss because I was so terrified of the possibility of being called out during our next film session. Anxiety would fill my mind at night, thinking of all that could go wrong at the next practice, my thoughts racing of what people thought of me, and what they were saying.
In my mind, if I kept quiet and to myself, then maybe I would feel better, and maybe I wouldn't feel so numb when I played the sport that once made me feel like a star. My version of taking care of the problem was telling myself and close friends, “if I can just make it to Christmas break then the season is halfway over and I’ll be fine."
Soon making it to Christmas break, became if I can make it to this Friday, then it became if I can survive today's practice, I'll be better and out of this state of mind. This wasn’t the case. I didn't realize that I had become so conditioned to this feeling of nothing, that I lost myself.
This idea of trying to become the old me consumed my mind. Why was it so hard to find her? Why did I not want to be in the gym like the old me?
The problem was I wasn't that Natalie anymore. I had grown and I had seen and experienced things that changed me. This old version that everyone wanted was gone and she wasn’t coming back. And I hated that because I thought that if I could just find the old me, everything would be better.
I remember being told that once the season progressed, I would feel the butterflies of excitement again and all the strong emotions that had once come with the sport would be back, and I would be the old freshman-year Nat.
Well, this wasn’t the case. After the first few games, I felt so numb when playing. It felt as if I was watching myself from the stands. My mind was consumed with thoughts about making a mistake or wondering how long until I would be pulled out because I wasn't performing like the old me. The numbness that I thought would go away if I could just put the ball in the basket and find a way to revive the old version of me never went away…until that scary word, change, happened. I quit the team before Thanksgiving break and decided to transfer.
My biggest fear of change was happening right in front of me. Questions of doubt started to spiral in my brain: “Do I transfer and play somewhere else?” “Will another program accept me midseason?” “Who am I without basketball?” I questioned my identity, because who was I, if I wasn’t following my original game plan?
Luckily I was fortunate enough to find a place where I felt supported, heard, and understood. I was ready to give basketball up entirely and never play again, but finding my new school allowed me to re-spark my passion. I know many athletes aren’t as lucky as me, they can’t leave, they feel trapped, and believe they have to stay where they are because of a commitment they made at the age of 17 or 18.
I am so grateful that I was able to get to a place in my life where the numbness disappeared and I feel butterflies again when I step onto the court. I don't dread practices, film sessions, or games. I want to be playing basketball, I want to be with my team, and most importantly I am the new version of Natalie Mehl, a version that has found happiness and no longer feels out of control or lost.
My goal is to become a coach and I want to be the coach I needed in those times of struggle and pain. I promise that I will do everything in my power to be what that young Natalie needed for my players. To the athletes reading this, change does not always need to be a bad thing. Change can be a good thing. Use change to find your happiness and find where you feel you belong. You matter and your mental health is way more important than any life plan or commitment you feel you owe to your sport.