I’ve been competing as a track & field athlete since 2003.
Needless to say, my athletic career has been a significant part of my life, taking me around the world, and paying for my college education in the process. It led to the fulfillment of a childhood dream of competing in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. And, it’s currently what I’ve been devoting my attention to en route to the Tokyo 2020 Games. But last spring I pulled the plug on my season, and stepped away from the sport altogether.
Why did my season, after 6-plus months of training, come to such an abrupt halt? The answer is straightforward: In the countless hours of training my body, I had completely neglected my mind.
There’s something to be said about the plight of the “hard-worker” , especially in the realm of sport. As athletes, we tend to pride ourselves on blasting through barriers, while ignoring the pain of the collision. We shun the idea of time off, and treat our training as a sort of religious practice ; taking time off is sacrilege when there are championships to be won. Our “no days off” mentality is exactly what puts trophies in the case, right? I beg to differ.
When we neglect our life outside of training, favoring “pushing through the pain” over our mental wellbeing and self-care, burning out becomes a matter of when rather than if. Left unchecked, our dedication to our sport can become the driving force behind our downfall. I learned this lesson the hard way last April.
In my event, the triple jump, you sprint down the track (aka the runway) at full speed, then leap off of one leg, land on that same leg and leap to the next, before leaping again and landing in a sand pit. When done well, you’ll land further inside the pit than ever before. In the early part of the 2018 season, I was ready to do just that.
In my previous competition, I uncorked a huge jump that was marked a foul. It was a great performance, but like hitting a would-be buzzer beater after the buzzer had already sounded, it didn’t count. This kicked off a week of intense training. Already being a hard worker by default, I pushed myself even harder, both mentally and physically. The next meet was at the end of the week, and I had to be certain of my success.
On competition day, after going through my pre-meet routine and warm-up, it was time to go. Stepping on the track, the nerves of competition gave way to the present moment, and I was ready to fly.
Or so I thought.
I sprinted down the runway for the takeoff board, just like I’d done countless times before. But this time around, as my body flew through the air, it seemed as though my mind had been somewhere else entirely. I bailed out of jump and landed back on the ground, then wobbled off the runway with my vision blurring, as an extreme dizziness set in. Thankfully, my training partner ran over to offer a shoulder for me to lean on and gather myself. Still breathless, I took my track spikes off, put them in my backpack, and pulled out of the competition. My meet was over before it began.
“What the hell just happened?”
The question replayed itself in my mind over and over throughout the two-hour drive home, and the answer revealed itself over the following days. What I had conveniently “forgotten” to do during that intense week of training was take a step back to reassess how hard I was pushing myself. For months prior to the meltdown, I had been juggling stress from work, unprocessed grief surrounding the loss of a loved one, and extreme overwhelm in trying (read: failing) to deal with these burdens on my own in silence. The signs that I needed some quality time away were all around me, but were buried in favor of chasing glory on the track. I was operating on the edge, and the pressure of competition pushed me over.
My wake up call came in the form of a mid-jump panic attack, but it could’ve easily been worse. I canceled my plans for the 2018 season and chose to take time away from track and field altogether; it was time to treat my mental and physical health not as a priority, but the priority.
The first course of action was to seek out professional help in the form of a counselor, because as I learned rather abruptly, a decade-plus of unprocessed grief will tear you down internally until it eventually manifests itself outwardly. Grief, as it turns out, is like a weed: it doesn’t go away until you address the roots of the issue. With the tools gained from our sessions, I then spent the entire summer focusing on doing only what made me feel good in the moment.
I cried the tears I withheld as a thirteen year-old at my sister’s funeral.
I played video games, went hiking, and spent ample time with family, friends, and myself.
And for the very first time as an adult, I experienced life as a non-athlete.
As my spirits began to lift, I set clear, resolute intentions for my 2019 return to track and field. When I resumed training in late 2018, I quickly learned that spending a season away was exactly the respite I needed to revitalize my career on the track, and more importantly, my life off of it.
To the athlete reading this, contemplating whether to take a day off, or to “fight through the pain” yet again —if you were looking for a sign to seek help, see the doctor or the therapist, or to just sit down and relax, this is it. Your life exists beyond the boundary lines of the playing field, and you’re only given one.
Sometimes, time off — whether it be a day or a year — is exactly what you need in order to appreciate this truth and level up.
So take it. You deserve it.