Under pressure

April 26, 2021

The fine line between an athlete’s best performance and exceeding their limits can be fragile. This rings true for many athletes at West who strive to compete at a top level consistently. For track and cross country runner Ella Woods ’22, the combination of a competitive environment and the pressure to excel causes her to aim for an unrealistic standard.

“I feel like I always have to be good … and I can’t have bad days,” Woods said. “When I win one race, I feel like I have to win them all.”

West High Girls Varsity Tennis Coach Amie Villarini feels athletes have pressure coming in from a multitude of sources to continually achieve the best results.

“Pressure exists because we all want to succeed. We all want to be winners. Nobody wants to fail,” Villarini said. “At West, there are certainly higher standards, which then makes for stronger competition with peers to make the cut or to be the best.”  

“I feel like I always have to be good … and I can’t have bad days. When I win one race, I feel like I have to win them all.”

— Ella Woods ’22

Like many of her players, Villarini participated in United States Tennis Association junior tournaments and can draw parallels to her personal experiences.

“I remember feeling bad and beating myself up a lot for making mistakes and losing because I was the only one to blame,” Villarini said. 

Athletes may also feel the stress of maintaining good time management between work, school and sports. For some, juggling these commitments can make playing a sport feel like a burden. 

This is the case for track and cross country athlete Clare Loussaert ’22, who feels the constant expectation of improvement can be exhausting. 

“This sport kind of became more of a chore than it was enjoyable,” Loussaert said. “All I wanted to do was get better, and every single thing I needed to do perfectly.” 

Bailey Nock ’18, a West High alumni and current collegiate cross country runner at the University of Colorado Boulder, resonates with the effect the competitiveness of West athletics can have on athletes.

“There’s a lot of pressure for high school athletes, especially at West High, because we have this tradition of winning and producing titles,” Nock said. “That just puts a lot of pressure on kids when we’re very young.” 

Nock has since discovered that athletes must maintain a healthy balance between striving to do their best and pushing themselves to the limits.

“We all kind of toe this tightrope of [wanting] to be the best. But we often will fall off the tightrope and be injured or mentally we just can’t do it anymore and we burn out,” Nock said. “There’s a lot of times where you want to get right up to that limit, but you don’t ever want to go above it, and toeing that line is extremely difficult.”

Nock feels that athletes must take care of their mental health if they want to succeed. 

There’s a lot of times where you want to get right up to that limit, but you don’t ever want to go above it, and toeing that line is extremely difficult.”

— Bailey Nock ’18

“I was doing track for everybody besides myself … to make other people happy, and that really takes a toll on your mental health,” Nock said. “I think an athlete is never going to perform as well as they can if they don’t have that support and they don’t believe that they can.” 

Girls varsity tennis player Ella DeYoung ’23 echoes these sentiments. 

“Mental health is the hardest part of tennis. Most of the time, you’re by yourself, and it is hard to not get in your head,” DeYoung said. “Lots of times you get so in your head that you spiral out of control, and it’s hard to get back from that.”

Nock believes there is a stigma around athletes fighting through mental health issues, which is often overlooked or ignored, especially in men’s athletics. 

“Athletes are kind of just told to toughen it up and to figure it out on their own,” Nock said. “Guy athletes I know have struggled with it, but they’re told to ‘man up,’ and that just is not fair to them.”

 As a male baseball player, Schuyler Houston ’21 has faced similar experiences regarding this stigma surrounding men’s mental health.

“‘Be a man’ is one of the common phrases that you hear. That’s one of the ones people like to harp on nowadays, which I get. It’s definitely not a positive phrase that helps growth,” Houston said. 

Although some athletes find themselves struggling mentally, for DeYoung, it can be reassuring to know that others can relate.

“If you’re struggling with something, there’s always someone else struggling with it as well. So, reach out to someone,” DeYoung said. “I’m sure everyone has struggled with the pressure that athletics bring. Find someone you can trust and reach out for help.”

Despite the mental toll that sports can impose on athletes, Head Football Coach Garrett Hartwig notes how athletics can also be a source of emotional support. 

“I have noticed that athletes often use sports and athletics as a form of mental therapy,” Hartwig said. “[It’s] a release from other daily pressures and an opportunity to focus, think, play and have some fun in another venue.”

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