Like Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, I’ve stepped away from competition because of performance anxiety.
In the second episode of the Netflix documentary series “Naomi Osaka,” the tennis star takes hundreds of practice reps in a cinematic montage. Osaka crushes forehand after forehand. She runs dizzying sprints from white line to white line. She does crunches (with a medicine ball) that look like torture.
In the next scene, she plays in the Madrid Open and performs terribly. The athlete across the net, whom I had never heard of before the scene, makes easy work of Osaka, who at that moment is supposed to be the greatest tennis player in the world. After the match, Osaka wipes tears on the sweatband on her wrist and hides her eyes with her hat.
The tennis celebrity met a similar fate in Tokyo on Tuesday. After Osaka lit the torch during the opening ceremony last week, she lost in straight sets in the third round of the women’s singles tournament.
Osaka’s disappointing performances and Biles’s confession about “having a little bit of the twisties” felt eerily similar to scenes from my own life.
But hers was perhaps not the biggest shock of the Tokyo olympics. Hours after Osaka’s loss, the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, withdrew from the team competition, citing mental health reasons. On Wednesday, she also bowed out from the individual competition.
I could never dream of comparing my athletic talent to that of Osaka or Biles. But Osaka’s disappointing performances and Biles’s confession about “having a little bit of the twisties” felt eerily similar to scenes from my own life.
As a pitcher for the University of Maryland, I threw about 400 pitches a week at practice for two years. I threw riseball after riseball. I ran dizzying sprints from outfield pole to outfield pole. Using only my fingertips, I carried softballs connected by chains to 20-lb. weights, which did, indeed, feel like torture.
Practice was clean, crisp and robotic. My sophomore-year pitching coach called me “Bullpen All-American” because I threw so many well-spun strikes during practice.
But games were another matter entirely. I walked an embarrassing number of batters. Out in the chalk circle, my vision became tunneled, my stomach tied in knots, and I felt like I couldn’t hear anything but my own racing thoughts. “Just throw a strike, you got this,” my mind told my body.
Despite my hours of practice, my arm felt completely disconnected from my torso. I threw the ball too low and too outside. Ball four.
I started experiencing both the yips and performance anxiety the summer before I entered college. But by then I was already committed to walk on to the Maryland softball team.
Out in the chalk circle, my vision became tunneled, my stomach tied in knots, and I felt like I couldn’t hear anything but my own racing thoughts.
The Washington Post reported that, “When gymnasts have the ‘twisties,’ they lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through, as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.”
Like the twisties, the equally harmless-sounding yips had devastating effects on my pitching. The yips caused me to let go of the softball when I hadn’t planned to, sometimes skipping it as it reached the plate or spinning it far above the catcher’s glove. Before I had the yips, I knew exactly what I did wrong after I threw an errant pitch. With this new mental block, I couldn’t feel where I went wrong at all.
Lucky for me, pitching—unlike gymnastics—did not require flinging my body through the air.
Near the beginning of my freshman season in a game in Florida, I went into the bottom of the sixth inning with one out and two runners on base. I walked the bases loaded, then walked another, allowing a run to score. Then I walked another, allowing another run. Then I threw a wild pitch. Another run scored. Long story short: We did not come back to win the game.
On that sunny, 73-degree day, I cried after the game in the grass behind the dugout. Part of the reason it felt so crushing to fail was precisely because I realized what an enormous privilege it was to play collegiate softball in Florida in March. It was not as high stakes as Osaka’s Madrid Open, but it felt like it to me.
I have only ever felt like my teammates were brave and admirable for dealing with and excelling under the exact same pressures that I faced.
After that my coaches encouraged me to take my mental health more seriously. I started meeting with a sports psychologist almost weekly, and for the hour I spent meditating, breathing and envisioning better pitching, my mind felt clear.
My sophomore year, I also began taking beta blockers, medication that was supposed to calm my physical symptoms of anxiety by reducing my blood pressure.
“A lot of world-class concert violinists take them,” my mom told me in an attempt to alleviate my shame.
Sometimes it helped. But my previous poor game performances did not give my coaches much of a reason to trust me to win games. So there I was, trying to chemically induce a state of zen in order to sit on benches around the country. I only pitched 20 of our team’s 467 total innings between my freshman year and March of my sophomore year.
In my first and only win at Maryland, I held Texas A&M Corpus Christi to one run over a full seven innings during February of my sophomore year. While giving my parents a celebratory hug after the game, I still felt nauseatingly anxious, just as I had out on the field. During the game, I masked my issues just enough to perform well, and the other team was just average enough that they couldn’t crack me. After the game, I smiled just enough to not let on to my parents that I was terribly afraid of my own mental state.
I knew then that winning was not the antidote to anxiety. It would take hours of mental practice, therapy and meditation that I did not want to commit to a game I no longer loved. Softball was not the only thing I wanted to accomplish during college, and the game had become so mentally exhausting that I felt like I was better off devoting my time to other parts of my identity—like my studies and social life outside of the team—that I had put on the back burner to play the sport.
So last spring, after spending thousands of hours throughout my life practicing and playing softball, I quit.
I can say for certain that my decision to quit has never felt brave or admirable. It felt awful. I have only ever felt like my teammates were brave and admirable for dealing with and excelling under the exact same pressures that I faced.
I imagine that, despite people correctly calling Biles and Osaka strong for recognizing their vulnerability, the athletes have mixed feelings about forfeiting or losing their competitions.
I hope that Biles’s and Osaka’s public experiences with mental struggles usher in a different kind of conversation altogether.
When I started struggling with the yips and anxiety, I stuck a Post-It note on my mirror with 2 Cor 12:9 written on it to try to feel better about my failures in softball: “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness. Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
Reading it always offered momentary peace and a reminder that I was more than my ability to pitch. But at the end of the day, I certainly would have rather just pitched well and won games.Yesterday, Biles tweeted, “the outpouring love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
Every word of encouragement to Biles from fans and sports journalists was necessary and worthwhile; I know that.
My hope for the future of the conversation around mental health in sports is that it doesn’t take an outpouring of support for athletes to know they are valuable beyond their ability to compete. Even more, I hope that Biles’s and Osaka’s public experiences with mental struggles usher in a different kind of conversation altogether: one that doesn’t revolve around “soft” versus “heroic,” but rather one that treats mental health challenges as ordinary parts of athletics, like sprained ankles or torn ligaments.
At the end of the day, no sporting competition will ever be without some complicating factors.
Every athlete practices to feel like they are sharing moments with God when it is time to compete. But sometimes you feel off, so you fail. Other times you reach that flow state and still fail. The other competitors may have reached it or caught some lucky breaks from the umpires, referees or judges.
The great example Osaka and Biles set by understanding and valuing their mental health will no doubt have a profound and lasting impact on athletes who struggle to deal with their own shortcomings. But I have a suspicion that this solace might not quite outweigh the pain of losing or quitting. They’re competitors, after all.
It’s on us as fans to recognize the value of challenges and unpredictability that always exist in sports, in which the mind plays an inextricable part.
I also don’t see the athletes walking away from their sports any time soon like I did. I imagine their devotions to their sports will carry them through the challenge of coping with mental health struggles. I think we will see them succeed again, and next time we can see them as complete individuals dealing with normal obstacles rather than projections of perfection.
It’s on us as fans to recognize the value of challenges and unpredictability that always exist in sports, in which the mind plays an inextricable part. All Osaka and Biles can do is strive to reach that divine-feeling flow state and see if it is good enough to win that day.
We should see Osaka’s and Biles’s mental struggles at the Olympics for what they are: impermanent, ordinary setbacks within the greater work of accomplishing extraordinary feats.
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