I chose to walk away from playing field hockey at the Division I level.
Notice how I didn’t say, “I quit playing field hockey.”
Or, “I gave up on field hockey.”
Or even, “I left my team.”
From somebody’s perspective out there, I’m sure that’s what it looks like. I’m sure someone somewhere probably thinks, “She’s a quitter. She gave up. She left her team. She’s selfish.”
But truthfully, if there are people out there who think those things, it says nothing about me. And I feel genuinely sorry for those people.
I get it. Even the first time I told the people closest to me a few days ago, I got some similar knee-jerk reactions. “Rylee, that’s not you. You always see things through. You’re not a quitter.”
And to those people, I said: “You’re right. I’m not a quitter.”
Even now. Even now that I am hanging up my college jersey. Even now that I’m willingly walking away from the biggest part of my life for years. Even now that I am no longer a part of the Rider field hockey team, which allowed me to play the sport I love at the highest level, by my choice. I am still not a quitter.
There was something that those people didn’t recognize before I gave my explanation for this enormous life decision, and it was this: by walking away from field hockey, I was not giving up. I was actually giving myself the room to keep going.
Those people didn’t know that stepping on the practice field or game field every day presented a practically crippling mental battle. They didn’t know the loss I felt every day going through drills trying to dig up that passion I had when I first fell in love with the sport— and coming up empty-handed. They didn’t know that this caused me to have an eroded sense of identity, to have dangerously deteriorated mental wellbeing, or to be a broken version of myself. They didn’t know that I had almost completely lost my will to continue on.
Did I walk away from my teammates? Yes. But I did it because I genuinely wanted what was best for them (and to want what’s best for your teammates is one of the most valuable things you can learn from playing your game at any level). I knew that my teammates deserved someone who could show up to practice and games wanting to be there 100% of the time. As someone who could not get this cloud to stop hanging over her head no matter how hard she tried, I knew I could no longer be that person for them.
And, at the end of the day, I did it because I wanted to get back to myself. I chose to put myself first. I had exhausted every option I had when it came to my mental health and still I had seen little to no improvement. I no longer wanted to feel this crippling anxiety. I no longer wanted to feel this strange resentment towards the sport I love. It was time to walk away from something that no longer served me. I learned a lot about myself as a result of this game. In fact, I learned so much that I had the self-awareness to make this decision.
I saw a post on Instagram the other day. One line from the post really stuck with me: “This past weekend, I watched a 9 year old throw up prior to a game because he was nervous.” (@sdday35) I remember thinking, I know that kid. That kid was me.
Another post was titled, “TO EVERY ATHLETE WHO” and went on to list all kinds of struggles that are unique to athletes, including feeling pressure from coaches to be perfect, feeling as though they are a product of an athletic department, and feeling as though their parents would be ashamed if they “quit.” Another line from that post stuck with me, too: “I want you to know that it is ok to put yourself first and do what is best for you. Even if the world doesn’t understand.” (@katduncanson)
I’m telling you my story not because I think walking away from your sport altogether is always the right choice. I also know that for some people, it’s literally just not possible, whether it be for financial reasons or other personal reasons. I might have nay-sayers, but I am lucky enough to have an amazing support system (especially my teammates) that made it possible for me to even think about making this decision. If you are someone who is quite literally unable to make a decision like this even though you know it’s what’s best for you, I am truly so sorry. I see you and I share in your pain.
But for those of you who are ready to take the leap, who have given it a lot of thought, and want to preserve their love for the sport despite their mental struggles— I’m here to tell you that you are not a quitter.
And the people we’ve seen all over social media and even in our own locker rooms who felt the pressure so immensely that they wanted to leave this world— Morgan Rodgers, Katie Meyer, Lauren Bernett, Jayden Hill, Owen Thomas, and too many more— they weren’t quitters either.
There is no shame in admitting that your mental wellbeing has suffered too much and that you are unable to recover from it unless you walk away. There is honor in leaving behind what no longer serves you. There is courage in loving a sport so much and still deciding that you have to walk away. There is bravery in putting your mental health first.
The sooner that we as athletes, teammates, coaches, and parents start spreading these truths instead of feeding into the stigma surrounding mental health, the better.