It was my sophomore year of college and one of my teammates and I were discussing ways to tear our ACLs. We spent close to 30 minutes discussing the ways in which we would curate a career-ending movement at practice during a scrimmage or drill to perfectly injure ourselves. Would it be in a meticulously calculated fall? Would we have to take a wrong step? Would we enter a tackle irresponsibly? These were the questions we were asking.
Why? Well, because we would have rather dealt with a year-long injury, while still obtaining our education and financial aid, than have to attend practice in a mentally toxic and draining environment with coaches who put us through a perpetual state of anxiety.
Thankfully, our delusional plan never quite came to fruition. I mean we weren’t necessarily granted the opportunity to do so in a game, since we both spent the majority of our careers on the bench. I, having totaled seven games played in the regular season from 2016 to 2020, didn’t quite get the opportunity to do anything irrational. But, as crazy as this sounds, I can’t think of another way to depict the absolutely and undeniably miserable mental state we were in as student-athletes.
From a young age, I always knew I was going to play college soccer. In fact, I remember it being something that I never really doubted, as I played alongside a group of truly elite soccer players, who now have gone on to play for the US Women’s National Team. College soccer never felt out of reach and when the time came in high school to begin the recruiting process, I felt like a kid in a candy store. It was a dream come true –college coaches put on their best smile and made sure to tell you how great of a player you were, why their school was the best, and flaunted the amenities that you’d have complete access to as a student-athlete.
I vividly remember getting so nervous to pick up the phone and talk to a college coach. I’d pace around my childhood room mustering up the courage to call them. I remember feeling absolutely intimidated by them, as they were more than twice my age and held so much power over my future. I was young, new to the world of college athletics, and willing to believe every word they said.
After six months of taking the process of college recruiting seriously, I picked my future and committed, verbally, to the University of Arizona. I loved the campus environment, they promised me the most money, and I wholeheartedly believed every word they said when they told me I was going to help them “build a legacy” in the PAC-12.
Two years after verbally committing, I stepped foot on campus for preseason in July 2016. I was ready to build that damn legacy, but something felt off. It was the little things that didn’t quite match the message I was given as a 15-year-old high schooler. From the first official day of preseason, I remember blindly getting my jersey and seeing the number 33. As I compared my extremely random, relatively high, and undesirable number (at least in soccer) to those around me, I asked my fellow freshman if they got to choose their number. I noticed that a pattern emerged –the freshmen who were playing on the not-so-random starter’s team all seemed to have chosen their numbers, while those who were placed on the non-starter’s team had been given a random number.
And as my freshman season went on, the patterns continued and the promises faded.
I remember begging to understand why I wasn’t playing or getting a chance to prove myself and being told that my “heart rate wasn’t getting high enough” during practice. Having a strong aerobic system, the scrimmages we’d play never quite brought my heart rate up to the coaches’ desired zone. No matter how hard I trained or how much I ran, I couldn’t naturally get my heart rate in the zone that met the coaches’ satisfaction, so I began chugging Red Bulls before practice on top of three to four cups of coffee. This got my heart rate higher, but to no shock, changed nothing other than the health of my heart.
Towards the end of an atrocious season, the coaches began creating the narrative that all of the bench players were “bad apples.” After each of us had received the same promises that weren’t met, we were expected to stay quiet, be the best cheerleaders we could be, and show up every day with a big smile on our faces as if nothing was wrong. Any complaint or expression of disappointment in the trajectory of our careers that we so desperately worked for was seen as negativity and was not tolerated by the coaching staff. Instead, we had to act like nothing was wrong, when in reality, everything was wrong.
Prior to our final game of the season, the team was split up into three groups. One of the groups was comprised of the starters, the second group was made up of the girls who would see 15 to 20 minutes a game, and the final group was made up of the girls who were benched for the majority of the season. I, having seen 13 minutes of playing time in our 22-game season, was included in this group. We were placed on the opposite side of the field, in the very corner, far away from the rest of the team. I was later told by one of my teammates that one of the coaches pulled aside his group to say something. He pointed over at us, the bench players, and told his group not to associate with us, as we were not good people to hang around.
I was losing grip of everything I had worked so hard for, and after a few years of my parents respecting my request that they don’t get involved with my college coaches, they came to my rescue. As an 18-year-old, in dire need of help from my mom and dad, I was beginning to believe the narratives my coaches created. Narratives that this environment was just a product of being in a competitive conference, the girls who were unhappy with their situations were bad apples, and “if there was truly a problem, we would be losing more games.” Despite maintaining a 4.0 GPA, showing up on time to training, working my ass off, and constantly trying to make do with my spiraling situation, my coach told my parents over the phone that I was hanging out with the wrong crowd (ahem, the bench players) and was “going down a bad path”. My parents, knowing my character remained the same, my grades were phenomenal, and my motivation was still alive, defended my character and questioned my coach. He backed away from his attempt to gaslight me, and gave me “another chance.”
Thinking my freshman year was an anomaly and things would be different my sophomore year, I did everything in my power to show that I was eager to play the following season. I saw the sports psychologist, practiced more on the side, shut out the girls I was told were “bad apples” (as crazy as it sounds), and made it my goal to hold a 4.0 GPA for the rest of college. I did everything in my power to prove myself worthy and take back control over my life and soccer career.
As sophomore year preseason approached, the same patterns emerged and nothing changed.
Following another personally unsuccessful season, making an appearance, this time, in zero regular-season games (a personal record!), my coach sat me down at the end of the season and told me that if I stayed for my last two years of college, I most likely wouldn’t play. He was certain of this.
There was one elephant in the room that neither of us addressed. In my National Letter of Intent, I had thankfully asked to be promised my scholarship for four years total, instead of year-by-year. This meant that no matter what, as long as I was a member of the team and with no true reason to kick me off, the program was obligated to pay my scholarship until I graduated.
With no prior knowledge or insight into the world of college athletics, I look back on this detail and am forever grateful for demanding my worth in monetary value before committing. However, this also meant I would have to make a decision to stay in my undesirable situation or transfer. I had the chance to potentially start over at a new school, where I probably wouldn’t receive a scholarship as significant, I would potentially lose out on many of my earned school credits, I’d most likely have to switch my major, I’d have to move and make new friends, and on top of all of that, I would have to try and prove myself all over again to a new coach, who might not even be better.
I chose to stay. I didn’t want to transfer as nothing was guaranteed and I was determined to be a student-athlete all four years, no matter what. Plus, if we’re being honest, I was determined to stick it to my coaches. After all, they gave me empty promises, and for that, they were going to pay. Quite literally pay for my education.
So why am I sharing this? It has been just over two years now since my soccer career ended at the University of Arizona and I have had time to breathe. In the moment, I was in full survival mode. I had one goal of finishing and making it out alive, but I am still trying to learn how to live in this world outside of athletics two years later. I can now only advocate for those in similar situations and hope that the generations that follow don’t tolerate toxic programs fostered by coaches.
I look back on my career with confusion. I am disappointed. From a young age, I dreamt of what college sports would be, and my experiences were everything I didn’t want them to be. I look at those around me who played and I wonder to myself, what if? However, I don’t want to be that person who victimizes herself. I am not writing this for your pity or to give you my sob story. Instead, I want to shed a light on what happens behind the scenes. I don’t expect you to understand what my experience was like because you have never been me. Just like I will never understand what it is like to be someone with a great college athletics experience. But let me make this clear – just because I will never understand what it is like to be them, it doesn’t mean their story or experience isn’t valid. At the end of the day, all I can do is listen and let those around me be heard.
However, I do look back and I think to myself, “I wouldn’t change a thing.” This sounds crazy, but it’s true –I am proud of myself. I learned so much about who I am as a person while enduring the few highs and many lows of my career. I finished with a 3.97 GPA, which wasn’t the 4.0 GPA I had promised myself (I like to tell myself the minus .03 adds character), but it was enough to prove to myself that I can conquer the things I do have control over. I reached a career-high of playing in, a record high of three games my senior season (lol). I made great friends and connections with people of all backgrounds and stories, all of whom I will forever cherish. Plus, I successfully achieved my goal of making it through all four years.
I also learned that those in power positions aren’t necessarily always leaders. I learned that in the most dismal times, it is possible to find joy and humor. I learned to be kind to others because you never truly know their story, what they’ve gone through or what they’re going through. I also learned that we all have our own stories and we must create our own paths. I learned that vulnerability is a beautiful thing.
And each student-athlete has their own story. I wouldn’t change a thing because my experience has provided me the opportunity to learn. It has provided me the chance to be vulnerable and share what I went through, with the hope to provide comfort and a safe space for those who might feel alone.
As we reach a turbulent time in society, we are seeing the mental health crisis in the NCAA and NAIA in full swing. And although it shouldn’t have to take rising suicide rates to prove there is an issue, action must take place. Whether it be asking for anonymous feedback at the end of each season from student-athletes or confidential weekly mental health checks with support staff, athletes need to feel heard, but also safe. I remember that feeling of terror in knowing that whatever I said to anyone in the athletic department would make its way to my coach and my scholarship would be revoked because I was being “too negative”.
Athletic directors also need to listen to the cries of student-athletes, hold coaches accountable, and pay attention to transfer rates. They need to prioritize the well-being of student-athletes, because contrary to the popular saying in athletics of “student first, athlete second,” it should always be human first. After years of complaints from the women’s soccer team at the University of Arizona, no one ever listened.
After my four years at Arizona, I saw a total of 25 girls transfer or quit. After experiencing, then witnessing the patterns, I knew from day one of preseason, who would get benched and would never get an opportunity to prove herself. It was never a doubt that each girl was good. In fact, they were all good at soccer. After all, they wouldn’t have made it to the college level if they weren’t good. But something happened to these girls, including myself. At the start, on day one, they were good but tense. They were nervous about messing up. I witnessed every player on the team, starters and bench players, mess up. Messing up is inevitable. But, the girls with longer leashes, had opportunities to mess up and get another chance, while the girls who the coaches knew from day one would never play, had the shortest leashes. And the second they made a wrong pass, or missed a tackle, or boggled a shot, their opportunity vanished completely. And by the end of the season, they were no longer the player they came in as. And the player they were at the end of the season, in their lowest of lows, was the player our coach would bring up in their end-of-the-season meeting to force them out.
Their confidence was gone, their mental health was lacking, and they were unhappy. After all, I have never met someone who could perform their best without complete confidence and a healthy mind.
At the end of the day, I understand that the NCAA is a business. I understand that college athletics are competitive and not for the faint of heart. But I beg and demand that we create and foster an environment that doesn’t jeopardize the mental well-being of student-athletes –a space where athletes enjoy going to practice and games, continue loving their sport, and don’t want to tear their ACLs on purpose.