For years, my entire life has revolved around athletic endeavors. At an early age as a gymnast, I began spending all of my free time in the gym. I was always the kid that would gladly go to the gym over hanging out with friends or relaxing on the weekend.
I never thought twice about canceling plans with friends to get in an extra training session, or skipping a family meal to stay an extra hour at the gym. I thought that the only path to a college scholarship was to forego everything in my life other than sports. While it did ultimately earn me my coveted scholarship, that tunnel vision came with a price.
My passion for sports has only intensified as I have grown older, but I have come to realize that I have missed out on so many of the important things that give life meaning. Things that you can’t earn through sweat and powering through a workout. Things that are only obtained through interacting with other people, exploring the city that you live in, appreciating the daily nuances of life, and getting to know yourself beyond athletics.
I have defined myself entirely through athletic ability for as long as I can remember, and I have placed the entire weight of my identity and self-worth on the fickle notion of athletic accomplishments.
The problem with being so hyper-focused on only one aspect in your life is that it begins to define you. Sure, extra time in the gym might be great for me physically…. but mentally, it wore me down.
I became my sport. I was defined by my good and bad days on the court. A bad day on the court equaled a bad day in my life. And those bad days quickly built up and felt like a huge weight on my shoulders. I wouldn’t allow that weight to be lifted until I could make up for it; I didn’t get to relinquish the weight until I worked three times as hard in the next few practices. But, by then, I inevitably had another bad practice, so that was yet another bad day to pay for in the gym. It was a never-ending cycle.
But contrary to what I believed for so many years, I have learned that being a more well-rounded person actually makes you a better athlete. Having other things in your life can help you recover from a bad sports day. Hanging out with friends or going to a really cool coffee shop can lead to a good day, even after a bad practice.
Life doesn’t have to be defined by athletic performance.
I have always been obsessed with “getting better.” While striving for growth does create continual opportunity for improvement, it also squanders any possibility of happiness with current ability. No hit is ever good enough, no dig ever accurate enough. The thirst for continually being “better” focuses only on the future; while being better is great, particularly in athletics, it’s hard to appreciate where you are “now” if you are always concerned about the future.
Where you are now is light years ahead of where you were 5 years ago, but it’s all too easy to overlook that progress when you only focus on your shortcomings. In the constant competition that comes with collegiate athletics, complacency is terrifying. I was always scared to be happy with my performance on any given day, for fear of losing my drive to improve.
Because yes, I do need to improve. I need to be smarter on the court, I need to be quicker in reading my opponent’s shots, I need to be faster, I need to be stronger, I need to be better.
But none of this is possible without taking a deep breath and appreciating where I am in the “now”. The future will never come without first accepting the present. You can’t live in the future: it doesn’t exist. All you can do is take where you are in the moment and make the absolute most of it.
It’s not easy to change the way you approach life. On most days I still revert back to my comfort zone of sport-obsessed Sarah, worrying about how much better I need to be in the future. But some days I’m able to take a step back and appreciate the “now”, and the people that I share it with. I have slowly realized that I can still have athletics, but it doesn’t have to be at the expense of the many beautiful experiences of life beyond the court.
It has been hard to wrap my head around the idea that having other things in my life doesn’t mean that I’m not passionate about my sport, but rather that I see the value in balance, maintaining relationships, and embracing a full life. I am a work in progress, and I’m finally ok with that.