The Athlete’s Mentality

“If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won’t have to hear it scream.”

~ unknown

I was raised on an athlete mentality. It was not driven by my family, but rather the activities I chose to take part in. It was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with.

From a very young age, I was on the soccer field. You fall down and scrape your knee? Brush it off and keep playing!

I was also in the horse ring. Your horse dodges a jump and you go crashing down on top of it? You get back on, and do it again. Show that horse who’s boss!

As I got older, lacrosse and alpine ski racing soon joined my arsenal. If you wipe out in ski racing, you pop up as fast as you can and hike up the mountain, skis on, to the place you fell, in order to finish with a time.

An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."
An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."
An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."
An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."

“It was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with.”

An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."
An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."
An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."
An athlete's mentality "was ingrained in the coaches I had and the kids I surrounded myself with."

As an athlete, I was taught to grit my teeth and push through. And I was good at it. No pain, no gain…right? But what happens when my body says no?

I was 13 when my body first said no. When I tried to brush off a concussion, to push through like I was always taught, my brain shut down. 

When I was 18, as a senior in high school, a Prefect, a captain of the lacrosse team, a straight-A student, and a striving overachiever, my body once again said no. I was sent into a tailspin of chronic ailments, from heart rate dysregulation and POTS to debilitating joint pain and exhaustion.

I eventually realized that this was a wake-up call. My body was no longer asking me to listen to it, it was demanding. Where I was once able to stay on top of everything and continue powering through, I now found lights flashing in my peripheries. While I was once able to ignore physical ailments, my body now literally sent me to the ground, gasping for breath when I pushed too hard.

“As an athlete, I was taught to grit my teeth and push through. And I was good at it.”

"As an athlete, I was taught to grit my teeth and push through. And I was good at it."
Photo by Tim Stewart

Although I didn’t know it at the time, this became an opportunity for me. An opportunity to learn how to truly take care of myself, something very few athletes let themselves do. It was an opportunity to learn the tune of my inner self and to listen to her. I had to choose to work with my body, not against it.

So I played sports on and off, day by day, season by season. Instead of ski racing, I coached. I captained my lacrosse team mostly from the sidelines. I let my body rest when it said it needed it. And it sucks that this lesson has to come from such pain, and every day it is a battle, but I show up, and I try.

Photograph of a ski coach skating up to a lift before the sun rises on a race day.
Coaches rise before the sun on race days!

“Every day it is a battle, but I show up, and I try.”

Athletes take their bodies to incredible lengths. It is amazing what the human body can do, but it takes a toll. And that toll looks different for each individual. For me, that toll was too high. I committed with everything I had to the idea that the only way to get better was to push harder. And it nearly broke me.

This is not to say that all parts of an athlete mentality are bad. Mental toughness is one of the most important life skills one can learn. Because of athletics, I know my strength. I know leadership, teamwork, and perseverance. I know that it is never over until it is over. My athlete mentality is the reason I keep fighting for my body every single day.

This is also not to say that we should stay within our comfort zones. Life is not always comfortable. Athletics taught me how to push through that discomfort, to find a path forward through experiences of displeasure. Athletics taught me grit. But grit that gets you through hardships and grit that destroys your body are two different things. Discomfort is okay, until that little voice inside you rings a warning bell.

We need to change the way we view being an athlete. Being a hardcore athlete doesn’t need to mean never coming off the field. Being an inspiring athlete doesn’t need to mean playing through every adversity. Yes, there are times when we brush it off and we get back up. But there are times when your gut tells you something is wrong, and you ignore it because you were taught to pick yourself up, no matter what. If not for yourself, for your team, we are told. But your health matters. Your wellbeing matters. You are no good to your team incapacitated. We need to respect the boundaries that our body places for us. And we need to not cross those lines so clearly set for ourselves. 

It is not weak to take a step back. It is not weak to listen to your body. It is not weak to take more time than expected to heal. You are not weak for taking care of yourself.

“You are not weak for taking care of yourself.”

Photograph of lacrosse sticks lined up on the sidelines, taken by a player sidelined by injury.
From the sidelines…

I crossed a line when I didn’t pull myself off the field that day I got my first concussion. I crossed a few more when I rode a horse and then played two different instruments the next day.

I am learning how to respect my body’s boundaries — the big ones, and the daily fluctuating ones. My body said no to college this year, so I listened. Last week I may have played in a full lacrosse game, but if my body says no to practice today, I sit out.

We must learn to read the tiny intricacies of ourselves, the little signals that are so vital to our health. To me, being an athlete was once pushing through the warning bells and achieving anyway, but my definition is changing.

Imagine what we as athletes could achieve if we respected our bodies and gave them what they truly need to succeed . . . what they ask for.