How sports saved me from myself: Anxiety in athletes

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Sandhya Kannan

To Senior Andrew Soong, it seemed like the entire court at that moment looked up at his father, who was one of the only ones standing up on the bleachers, and back at him.

“Andrew, save the ball! Don’t mess this up!” he shouted.

The ground below Soong felt unsteady and he desperately looked for an escape, but he couldn’t find one. He had the ball in his hand, but nowhere to go with it. His anxiety peaked, making him desperately and, almost irrationally, hope that he could be anywhere but that court.

“It’s this feeling where you feel like every eye in the room is on you constantly,” Soong said as he attempted to explain the instability he often feels on the court, especially during that game seven years ago. “You feel like you’re being pushed to dig a hole in the ground and just bury yourself there, out of sight and into a certain darkness.”

But then he imagined the room empty, without the people staring and the eyes burning into his back. Soong recalled remembering the practices where there was nothing but him, a cart of balls and the net. Hearing the swish of the net allowed a rush of calmness to wash over him, and everything felt natural. There were no thoughts about the day, no sadness, no walls — and the motions led to a connection that was almost spiritual.

“When I get on the court to shoot by myself, it acts as a huge relief for me,” Soong said. “It’s sort of an outlet, distraction, where there’s no anxiety, it’s just the ball, the net, and me.”

For some students, like Soong, sports serve as a rock to lean back on in moments of high stress. Although individuals with any form of anxiety can face drastic emotional fluctuations due to the stress while competing in their respective athletics, practicing the technical aspects of the sport have proven to be distractions from any instability in emotions, especially for Soong.

He speculates that his social anxiety stemmed from his early middle school years, but he wasn’t able to put a label on it until recently. He decided to follow his older brother’s footsteps of playing basketball from a young age by playing competitively for both school and club teams. He believes the constant pressure to do well on the team from his father and his teammates, along with the pressure to do well in school, paved a path of certain emotional instability that he began to blindly travel down.

Despite the calming effect basketball had on him, Soong’s anxiety peaked during the most stressful parts of play. Still, he has had no regrets in his decisions to continue with basketball. The moments that he is able to eliminate his surroundings and connect with the ball in his hand and the net in his sight, he claims that everything disappears.

“I’m still scared of being judged and of what people may think,” Soong said, “But I love basketball, and I owe a lot to it. My life would have simply been a flat road without it.”

For junior Patrick Yeung, track was his outlet, and his main goal was to constantly beat himself in his own game — to keep setting goals to break and milestones to reach. That served as the ultimate distraction from his inner conflict.

“Social situations have always been difficult for me,” Yeung said. “Track provided a different dynamic in some sense for me in that I didn’t have to think about the motions, which made them easy.”

Yeung’s social anxiety stemmed from an early age, as he went through his late elementary school years attempting to face the reality of not being able to face others. The constant exposure to his track teammates along with the responsibility allotted to him to manage his school and practice schedule kept him busy, allowing him to focus on achieving smaller, quantitative goals. Though he ended up quitting track due to bronchospasms, sudden contractions in the walls of the bronchioles in the lungs, his growth from the sport has remained consistent throughout the years both in and out of the classroom.

“In school, you can only beat yourself so many times,” Yeung explained, “but in sports, specifically track for me, you can always keep beating your time over and over again. There is no focus on anything but beating that number because your entire mind and body is invested in it.”

For Yeung, the team dynamic was positive, so connecting with sprinting became natural in any situation. The people who surrounded him, his teammates and coaches specifically, were sources of encouragement and his mind on the track was always sprinting to beat the time. He explained that his coach in particular made a huge positive impact during his time and allowed him to maintain consistency in his interests, keeping it a good distraction from whatever else threatened to stir internally.

“My coach always gave me good advice about rationing out my energy in races,” Yeung said, “kind of like what is expected in the classroom and in life. Sprint only at the end so you don’t give up at the last minute.”

Yeung and Soong, students who have dedicated themselves to their particular sport, both agree that positive reinforcement from coaches is incredibly valuable to those who struggle internally. Clay Stiver, the boys varsity basketball coach, reinforced this through his recounting of experiences graduated students who went through similar experiences.

“I’ve had several students who have been in positions of detrimental mindset in the past whom I’ve seen rise up from it playing basketball,” Stiver said.

“Being around the guys and feeling like you belong, or even just feeling the satisfaction of making that basket, made all the difference.”

Whether it’s being a part of an athletic family, striving to achieve a common goal, or just visibly seeing improvements, seeing the ball fall into the net or watching a sprint time progressively go lower and lower have proven to be enough to distract not only Soong and Yeung, but other MVHS athletes as well, from emotional roadblocks.

“I may not be sub one [minute] anymore for my 400 meter sprint, and I may not be in a team anymore,” Yeung said, “but suppose I do owe my life to this sport, literally, as indirect as it may seem — there is no doubt about it.