How I Overcame Stress and Anxiety as a Student-Athlete
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I was filled with joy when I got the opportunity to be a college diver at Kalamazoo College, a small, liberal arts Division III school in Michigan that has produced several NCAA diving champions.
I wanted nothing more than to be successful. But I had no idea success could take such a toll on my mental health. I had no idea that success could quickly become a burden rather than a blessing.
An Unexpected Setback
In my first year of college, I suffered a serious concussion halfway through my season that sidelined me for nearly seven weeks.
My recovery process was long and bleak. But after all my symptoms slowly dissipated, I was cleared to dive again. And I had a little under two weeks left to get back into shape before the conference championships.
Despite all odds, I had one of the best meets of my life at the conference championships after placing third on the 3-meter board and fourth on the 1-meter board.
A week later, at our team banquet, I won Most Valuable Freshman. Two weeks later, on a cold, dreary Wednesday afternoon in late February, I learned I had received first-team, all-conference honors.
At the time, all of my previous pain seemed worth it.
Against all odds, I had succeeded and accomplished the fairytale ending to my first collegiate diving season that I had worked so hard for.
Those amazing moments were everything I had ever wanted. Yet it was hard to experience so much unprecedented success. I worried I wouldn't be able to replicate this success in the same way again — and that scared me.
I wanted desperately to freeze time.
The pressure to keep working and striving for more made me feel like I was climbing a never-ending flight of stairs. Just when I thought I had reached the top and could be happy with my performance, there suddenly was a new flight of steps and a new achievement to accomplish.
The Sophomore Slump
My sophomore diving season was incredibly hard for me, largely due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The first half of our six-month season from October-December 2020 was cut. Every other school in our conference began practice in October like normal, but our old natatorium had been demolished while our new state-of-the-art facility was being built. We didn't have a pool to practice in, which further delayed our season.
I hadn't been able to dive since February, so I was severely out of shape when the season began in January.
We practiced at a local high school pool, but we could only secure pool time there 2-3 times a week. Conferences were still at the end of February, so I had approximately 15 practices after a year out of diving to gain all my dives back and compete against the other divers in the conference who were training regularly.
My yearlong break had huge implications for my diving. I tried to adjust my expectations for my season, but admitting I was not going to be as successful as I wanted made me feel like I was giving up on myself and my goals.
The entire season, I felt like I constantly was playing catch-up to my first diving season.
My stomach filled with nerves and dread before every practice. Nothing I accomplished in that practice felt like enough for me. I knew I wouldn't be all-conference again. And grieving that loss of an opportunity while still having to work as hard as possible to be half the diver I had been the previous season was defeating.
A cycle of self-doubt and self-sabotage began.
I was barely sleeping, barely eating, and barely able to crack a smile. I cried at least once a week during practice as the anxiety and misery I felt inside me seeped out uncontrollably.
I desperately needed somebody to just ask if I was OK — to ask if there was anything that could placate the stress and anxiety I was constantly battling or say that they understood and would still respect me and value me the same as an athlete and human being.
I never heard that.
I ended up placing fourth on both boards at the conference championships — an amazing feat despite my circumstances. I was happy. Yet, I couldn't help but be disappointed and wonder how I would have done if I had as much practice time as the rest of my competition.
My New Beginning
It took time for me to realize that diving was more than success.
I did not dive to stand on a podium with a medal on my neck. I did it to overcome my fears, to be brave and courageous, and to feel the same adrenaline rush that made me fall in love with diving at 10 years old.
Success is only part of it. Success cannot make me happy, only I can do that for myself.
I've fallen in love with a new cycle: peace.
I still sacrifice blood, sweat, and tears to diving. But this new cycle is healthy and safe — two things the old cycle had never been. Being able to compete in a meet and knowing that regardless of how well I dive, I still am valuable and worthy is freeing.
It's allowed me to fall back in love with diving again. And I'd rather love diving and not be as successful as I once dreamed of than deal with the stress and anxiety of pursuing success at the cost of my well-being.
Meet the Student:
Sarah G. Densham
I am a senior English and psychology double major at Kalamazoo College. I'm on the varsity diving team and have received all-conference honors. Outside of diving, I'm an active member in the swim lesson program Swim for Success. I also coach diving lessons, and I'm a reading and writing tutor for elementary school kids.