By Jevon Moore, Athletics Counseling Intern/Mental Health Outreach Coordinator
Your coach yells, “Timeout!” and the ref immediately follows with a loud blow of the whistle. Your team gathers on the sideline with the coaches for one last time.
There’s 1:48 on the clock and you get a shot of water and take a deep breath. Your coaches are all talking and pacing back and forth hoping you understand how important it is to be calm and to remember what you practiced. The whistle blows again and the other team slowly gathers back on the field.
You have fought your way back into the game after a slow start and the momentum has begun to shift back to your team. You know it. Your team knows it. Every individual in the stands knows it. The entire crowd stands in anticipation for an exciting finish that will end in glory or hard fought defeat.
The key to success is very similar to your path to athletic success; preparation and practice
Everyone from your mailman to your dentist is in the crowd screaming their heads off in support. Your breathing is slow but your heart is pumping with a little extra thump as you prepare for the play to begin.
A few quick memories run through your head as you find your spot. You start to remember those early mornings with the team, that diet you started, and of course that extra rep in the weight room; they all were for this moment. Will you channel all your preparation and beat back that voice in your head wondering if you have what it takes? Or do you fall victim to the moment and watch the other team dump ice on their coach’s head?
Fast forward: Now you’re in college. You’ve made it. You are miles away from everything you knew so well back home and you started a new chapter in your life. This journey you’re on and all the hard work you did while in high school has given you the opportunity to play sports in college. So why do you feel lost and confused? This is everything you wanted and dreamed about, but now that you are here something doesn’t feel right.
The coach that you were excited to work with doesn’t seem to get you. Your teammates are not as supportive and friendly as you imagined. The campus is way bigger than the pictures showed and your professors all seem to be speaking a foreign language in class. Things continue to move a little faster and before you get the chance to get comfortable with your surroundings you are hit with your first set of mid-terms. But wait, your coach is also telling you they will be testing everyone to determine your role on the team this week. What just happened?
You quietly sit on your bed and yearn for the good old days where your support network of family, friends, coaches, and teammates all knew how to get you out of a funk. But that’s in the past and you sit alone now in a dorm with a roommate you just met a month ago and you’re not sure who to talk to. Your chest is starting to get tight and your heart is thumping like the game is on the line. There is a thick cloud of fog in your head and the more you try to think of what to do the thicker the cloud gets.
Let’s take a Zac Morris break and get a handle on the situation. If you’re aren’t aware of Zac Morris and his life-pausing “timeouts” during the show Saved by the Bell, then do yourself a favor and add that to your binge watching list on the weekend. But seriously, there are some simple ways that you can get control of your life again.
First, let’s get a feel for what’s different now that you’re playing a college sport:
- New coaches with a range of varying coaching styles
- New practice and training times that are a little more intense than high school
- New teammates and personalities to navigate which make you wonder, “who can I trust?”
This is completely normal. We have all been there. As a student-athlete, we have all walked on campus as a first-year athlete with our eyes wide open going from class to practice to study hall then to bed wondering where the day went. The key to success is very similar to your path to athletic success; preparation and practice. You learn the skills, practice them for mastery, and then trust in your training.
So, let’s teach you a few skills.
It Starts with Me
Anxiety doesn’t always hit you from the side and knock you clean off your feet. It can sometimes just feel like a fog. No matter the degrees or amount of fog, take a second to recognize what is happening inside you. The key to making a big play is knowing when to make it. So take time to recognize the moments when your body is feeling weird. Jot down notes if you’re a list maker or just make a mental note. Either way, the better you get at identifying the feelings when they start, the faster and more efficient you can be at getting yourself back into prime form.
Scheduled “Worry” Time
Now that we know when we usually start worrying or have an idea of what causes our worry, let’s make time for it in our schedule. Set aside a block of time in your day to give in to the beast you have been fighting every day. See the trouble with anxiety is that it feels like a day long struggle but it’s probably only a few thoughts on repeat that keep bugging you. That’s why we set aside time to let it all pour in.
Every negative thought that exists below the surface about being a new kid on campus. Every worry you have about not being able to keep up with school or compete with your new team needs to be explored. Once you have turned the flashlight on all the areas of that dark cave, we call anxiety, then start over. Set aside ten minutes, then worry for ten minutes straight with no shortcuts or relief. Once your time is up, climb your way out of that cave and let’s spend some time outside in the sun.
Now That Feels Good
We’ve just given into the worry and we want to move on with our day, but first let’s take some calming breaths to reset our mind and body. Just like at the end of a game you need a minute to relax in the locker room before facing the world and this breathing technique should give your body time to adjust. Before starting, make sure you are somewhere you can be comfortable and safe to close your eyes and relax.
Distractions during this time can throw you off and make it hard for your body to fully relax. So put the phone in airplane mode or, if that hurts too much, lay it in another room. Get comfortable and let’s take a deep breath in through our nose counting to four slowly. Hold the air in your lungs for at least 4 seconds allowing the air to fill your lungs completely. Once you get to four, breathe out slowly counting to six to empty all of the air from your chest. Continue this cycle at least four times or until you can consciously feel your body release all that negativity.
You should now be refreshed and to some degree prepared to take on your next challenge. If this isn’t the case try finding a quieter, more remote place to do your breaths. The key isn’t to rush through this, but instead to give in to it completely.
There are more coping skills and resources for dealing with anxiety here just in case this didn’t do it for you. In any case, don’t fight with this alone. There are resources available that can help you find peace, and sometimes it takes an outside voice to talk our brain into complete buy-in.
Remember, just like before the big moment when the game is on the line and everyone is watching, you took time to train and study and practice your skills. So don’t wait until your worries get out of control to test them out. Take time now, call a timeout, and make a plan. The more prepared you are for the moment the better you will perform.
About the Author
Jevon Moore is an MSW candidate working as an intern with the Performance Psychology and Athletic Counseling team. In this role, Jevon works with the athletic counselors to assist in providing a full spectrum of care and services for student-athletes ranging from performance concerns to everyday emotional stressors. In addition to clinical care and support, Jevon consults with coaches and student-athlete support staff such as dieticians, academic counselors, doctors and trainers to ensure the most integrative care possible.
Jevon is originally from North Carolina having played football at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. As an undergraduate student he majored in Industrial Engineering focusing on systems management and cost reduction practices. Read “Passion, purpose and a love story” to learn more about Jevon’s journey in helping mental health awareness and support.
Campus Mind Works – U-M website supporting student mental health