A sport yields immense power in a young athlete’s life. It challenges an athlete to grow, not only in physical strength but in the confidence to use it. Success on the field or court is met with praise and the exciting possibility of scholarships and fame.
But as athletes begin to excel at a sport, they may become fixated on their performance. When that happens, a sport ceases to be a constructive force in an athlete’s life and instead starts to consume it. Trey Athletes spoke with licensed counseling and sports psychologist Megan Harrity, Ph.D., to hear what happens when your sport becomes your everything, and what can help you escape that mindset.
1. Extreme mood swings
Harrity says that an unhealthy obsession with your sport can be hard to notice when everything is going well. But when you lose a game or are sidelined by an injury and your mood plummets, that might indicate obsessiveness with a sport.
Some of the reasons behind mood swings in athletes are neurological – research suggests that endorphins make us feel good when we exercise. When an athlete (especially a distance or endurance athlete) is suddenly sidelined by an injury, the brain is deprived of those “feel good” signals, to which the athlete may have grown accustomed.
“I wish I had a magic wand for that,” Harrity says. Although there’s no quick fix, Harrity says that a sense of self-awareness is vital.
“That doesn’t take the struggle away,” she says, but recognizing your own struggle and meeting it with compassion can help. Once you have a greater sense of self-awareness of the struggle you feel, you will be able to see the bigger picture of your journey with your sport, rather than be consumed with one moment of victory or defeat.
2. The inability to make decisions
A sport often dictates almost every aspect of athletes’ lives, down to when they eat, sleep, and have time to see friends. Some college athletes have trackers that report data back to their coach, Harrity notes. With such constant monitoring and supervision, athletes may construct a sense of security in not having to make their own decisions about their sport.
This mindset, when taken to the extreme, can travel into other areas of athletes’ lives. Athletes may struggle with deciding bigger life questions, such as what to major in, or even smaller decisions, such as what to snack on.
Harrity says that there is “both good and bad” in participating in a sport that tells you what to do and when. It may help athletes focus on the constructive side of this structure, such as the accountability of their coach and the support system of their team.
Most of all, Harrity notes that athletes who struggle with this, especially athletes who recently graduated from a college team, should remember that they are not alone.
“Who can you reach out to?” Harrity says that she would ask athletes who feel like they can’t make decisions on their own. Another perspective, whether it’s from a teammate, friend, parent, or mentor, can provide clarity in your situation.
3. Feeling like you can’t slow down
Faced with balancing school, a sport, a social life, and other commitments, a student-athlete may fall into what Harrity calls “hamster on a wheel mode.”
“It feels like they don’t have a minute to take a step back and look at, how is this serving me, what am I doing that is working, what’s hard right now, what’s the struggle? It’s just kind of keeping your head above the water,” says Harrity.
Harrity encourages athletes to find a time in their day to pause and reflect: “What’s a small, simple practice that you can start to put into your day or your life? Maybe it’s a three-minute chat at the end of the day. It can be as simple as that.”
For busy student-athletes, Harrity says that transition time can be used intentionally. Instead of pulling out your phone and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, you can use down-time to pause and center yourself. Times like walking to class or waiting in the locker room can all be used to help recharge amid the flurry of the day’s activities.
“I think a lot of the time it’s just intention,” says Harrity. It’s not about the time you have, but about using your time well, even if it comes in little chunks.
4. Losing the ability to appreciate past achievements
Comments like “I was so slow in high school” or “I knew nothing freshman year” or “I was such a rookie when I started” tend to abound when athletes discuss their progress.
These comments do signify a kind of progress, but they also may be symptomatic of an unhealthy relationship with your sport. Just imagine if you said those things to the high school or freshman version of yourself – would that be fair to your accomplishments at that point?
It’s great to achieve more than you thought you were capable of, but it can be unhealthy when that comes at the expense of appreciating your past achievements. Your high-school times and stats still signify a great achievement, even after you’ve far exceeded them.
Harrity says that acknowledging your own story can help you appreciate your past achievements and that celebrating is important when you look back on your athletic career. If there are parts of your story that are disappointing, like not reaching a goal, Harrity encourages athletes to reframe that disappointment in terms of things they learned from that experience. But at the same time, she encourages athletes to honor their disappointment as disappointment.
“If it is disappointing, honor that. That is part of life, that we strive and train and work really, really hard for something and then fall short.”
Honoring your past disappointments and your past achievements can lend perspective to your athletic career. Perspective frees you to enjoy your sport – a single win or loss does not define your career.
5. Life becomes result-centered
The biggest symptom of being obsessed with your sport, and the most dangerous, is conflating your results with your identity.
Harrity says that a result-centered mindset often comes from deep-seated neural pathways and may manifest in an athlete’s sport. An athlete might already be thinking this way, but when combined with a sport, it becomes obsessive and potentially self-deprecating.
Harrity said that result-centered behavior is often learned at a very young age. “When we’re younger, we internalize the messages we get from the adults in our lives in ways we don’t even recognize,” says Harrity. Children who do not feel unconditionally loved by their parents may develop the tendency to try to “earn” their parents’ approval by achieving things. The same could be true in friend group settings, where a child doesn’t feel like he or she belongs without earning the group’s approval.
When they get older, they “push play” on these messages that they picked up as kids. Then they might feel “like their worthiness hinged on what happened on Friday night on the football field, or how that match went,” Harrity says.
By the time an athlete reaches that point, “those neural pathways have been enforced for so long…it’s a six-lane highway,” says Harrity. “That belief is hardwired now.”
Harrity says that the first step to overcoming this result-centered mindset is to “start to challenge some of the messages that you are pressing play on.”
Think about who you are apart from your sport. Ask family and friends what they love about you. Stretch your understanding of yourself.
“You are way more than what you accomplish in your competitions, or how your training goes,” says Harrity. Outcomes matter, but athletes are much more than that. “We as humans have so much to offer beyond our performance.”
About the Author
Anna Wilgenbusch is a student-athlete at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. She uses her dual passions for running and journalism to encourage student-athletes to integrate into their wider campus communities. Anna is an NCAA DIII cross-country All-American and was the USCAA individual national cross-country champion in 2019. Anna also competes in long-distance track and holds her university’s 5k school record. When not running, studying, or writing for her campus paper and Trey Athletes, Anna can most likely be found playing violin or baking. She calls St. Paul, MN her home.