Photo By: Jeffrey F. Lin from Unsplash
*All sources featured in this piece have been made anonymous so as to protect them and their identities. Certain details have also been purposefully left out for the same reason.*
Being a varsity athlete isn’t just cool swag and playing the sport you love. Emotional highs and lows, mistreatment, and horrible coaches can ruin a sport forever.
Being recruited in university to play a sport is a common childhood dream; It was certainly mine. Little did I know that I would be constantly penalized for trying to prioritize my education and my work. They took the joy and the excitement out of the sport.
“My coach targeted me, criticized my shortcomings, and penalized me for prioritizing school and work. Growing up I was my coach’s best friend, always winning most valuable player, coaches awards, team captain, you name it. Having a coach dislike my every move, on and off the field, was a huge contributor to my depression and anxiety in that year of my life. The toxic environment they created stole the joy of playing away from me and created unnecessary tension between teammates,” said Athlete A.
As varsity athletes, we were expected to completely rearrange our school schedules to accommodate the practices; five nights a week 4:30 p.m – 7:30 p.m. We had to prioritize the team over school, classes were all meant to be an afterthought. We had to meet all of the required number of practices a week if you wanted to play in games; that meant sprint practice at 7 a.m twice a week and team lift practices three times a week. The coaches also stressed that all the athletes needed to volunteer for the Supporting Neurodiversity initiative through the Adaptive Programming (SNAP) program every week to maintain our team’s positive reputation. However, it’s important to stress that these standards, as well as the others I’ve mentioned before, were only applicable to most of the teammates, the coaches hand-picked favourites seemed to always get out of the additional requirements.
Looking back at all the hours I committed to being on the varsity team, it’s not even that these things weren’t enjoyable. I was surrounded by my teammates, doing fun things for good causes and we were making a difference; whether we were volunteering, being involved in the community or simply working on our physical health. But it was hard having to dedicate every shred of time to simply be pushed to the side and to be told I wasn’t good enough.
Weekly coaches’ meetings left me feeling like my best was never good enough, no matter how committed I was, no matter how hard I worked; the coaches had an opinion of me and others, and our skills as athletes didn’t even matter at that point.
“As a person who values self-reflection a little too much, the amount of time I have spent thinking about what I’ve sacrificed for sport is untraceable. I’ve essentially determined that forgoing opportunities like academics, social gatherings and simply my own health is related to how poor my mental health was during my time as a university student-athlete,” said Athlete B.
Emotional and physical pain were incredibly common on this team. One of the coaches was so tough that they would make us do drills until we threw up. This has had a considerable impact on me, as I still have a hard time knowing when to stop pushing myself in all areas of life.
There’s a lot of mental health benefits to being on a team. For instance, the sense of community is incredibly helpful when trying to make your way through university. But the harsh words and poor treatment that we faced from coaches kind of negated the benefits. The coaches had no interest in our mental well-being.
“We were headstrong, we weren’t sheep and that’s what the problem was. The coaches had a problem with anyone who had an opinion, anyone who had a voice, anyone who stood up for the things they believed in,” said Athlete C.
The constant double standards and contradictions from this coach at the time were exhausting.
“It wasn’t even being a good athlete versus being a bad athlete, it was all about who they had power over. The coach would talk about other players behind their backs and talk about how they acted outside of school and how they went on vacation and would drink and how that was frowned upon. Meanwhile, the coach would go to the bar with that group of favourite players and talk smack about the rest of the team,” said Athlete B.
“The coach had this ego complex, it’s like they were trying to recreate their high school experience. They would build us up, just to tear us down. For example, they would promise me a spot on the roster, compliment my hard work and my dedication and then come game day, my name wouldn’t be on the roster and they would tell me that I wasn’t committed. It was all a game and it was so emotionally exhausting for me. I ended up quitting after that year,” said Athlete C.
From the outside looking in, we were a great team who was performing well, but from an inside point of view, the environment was toxic, the athletes were unhappy, and the success of our team had very little to do with the coach and more to do with the high-level talent we had.
“The worst part of the entire year was watching the coach get awards knowing what they had done to all of us, the way they would pit us against each other and made us hate the other players. How are we supposed to work as a team when we are constantly being told to destroy them? There is a difference between breeding healthy competition and legitimate hatred planted by the coaches,” said Athlete B.
By the end of the year, the morale of the team was suffering; players had quit left, right and centre. There were girls who had been playing their whole lives who wanted nothing to do with the sport anymore.
“After I withdrew from the team, I was devastated. But I look back at that experience as a fundamental lesson to my own coaching philosophy. It is crucial to create a safe and supportive environment for young women and girls for them to achieve their full potential and create bonds that last beyond our playing years,” said Athlete A.
The toxic environment and the inability to be yourself on this team became suffocating. It was hard to be in love with a sport when every aspect of it no longer brought any joy into our lives.
That coach eventually left the program, and so it is now run by a new team of coaches. According to the current team, there is more awareness for mental health, the whole team environment is safer now and the overall team morale has improved drastically.
“Without the emotional ups and downs and the maltreatment from the coaches in the past, I would probably not appreciate the following years when I did decide to join the team again under the new coach. It was the right place at the right time. This coach saw me as a person and an athlete. They accepted me for my shortcomings and put trust in my strengths,” said Athlete A. “The environment they created allowed us to express our individuality. The coach encouraged true collaboration between young women, which is an opportunity that is rare and powerful. The bonds we made as teammates while in a positive and supportive environment will be cherished for a lifetime.”
As athletes, we are taught to push ourselves and test our limits. We are taught to be resilient and get back up even after we’ve been knocked down. Looking back on that year, putting everything into perspective, I am fortunate enough to have had the courage to walk away and continue my passion for the sport in a different environment. I am fortunate that I spoke out to my teammates and found people who were experiencing the same things as I was and I am fortunate that we were all able to stand together.
It is hard to walk away from something you love so much, something you have been doing since you were a kid. But there becomes a point in all of our lives where we have to decide if continuing on is worth compromising our values, morals, and self-respect. I hope if you ever find yourself in a situation similar to this one that you will have the courage to take a stand too, because you will thank yourself when you do.