The clock strikes 4:30 AM, and my alarm goes off for swim practice. No matter the temperature or hours before dawn, I rise to swim driven by the desire to improve. By 7:15 AM, one workout in, I am showered and eating my breakfast in my school’s parking lot and at 8:00 AM, I begin a typical school day. At 1:00 PM, I eat a light lunch in the pool’s parking lot before heading to my second workout of the day. I complete circuits of core, mobility and strength exercises, and then follow “dryland” with a two-hour swim session. Post-practice, I drive the thirty-minute commute home in five o’clock traffic and immediately begin my homework. I eat dinner and fall asleep by 10:00 PM. This is my weekday schedule. Well, it was my weekday schedule. Now, however, I put my mental health first.
All athletes should prioritize mental health to confront or avoid burnout. Elite athletes will inevitably face mental health challenges, and data indicates that 35% of elite athletes privately suffer from disordered eating, burnout, depression and anxiety attributable to their sport. During a three-day swim competition my junior year, I realized I was moving towards athletic burnout. The sport that had always been a constant joy in my life was causing a fear of failure, and I wasn’t myself. I knew my life needed a change.
Engaging in self-care has been clinically proven to reduce anxiety, minimize frustration and increase happiness. To incorporate self-care into my own life, after much consideration, I officially decided to switch club swim teams. I informed my friends and coaches of my decision, and though I was nervous, I have never felt more supported than at that moment. My friends understood that this change was something I needed to do for myself, and they were proud of me for putting my happiness first. My coaches appreciated me discussing my decision with them respectfully and directly. Walking out of my final day of ATAC swimming, I had never felt more on the right track.
Additionally, data shows that 83% of people who experience burnout admit that it negatively impacts their relationships, personal lives and causes excess stress. Instead of waking up in the morning fearful of an afternoon swim practice that was yet to come, I now had a fresh set of eyes from a new coach, a great new group of supportive friends to train with and a stronger regard for my mental health. I also spoke with a sports psychologist as another stress-relieving resource. It was comforting to have someone outside of my family or friends to talk to, but still, another strenuous choice was in my future.
I decided that the best decision for my overall happiness, and my future, would be to hang up my cap and goggles after my senior high school state meet. I put everything I had into swimming, but it just wasn’t bringing me joy anymore. When seeking advice, my grandmother told me that swimming had enabled me to challenge myself, establish friendships, develop time management skills and prioritize commitment; all of which will help me thrive at whichever college I choose to attend. Swimming has been a great thing for me, but it was ultimately not my thing. I was terrified because my peers and teachers had always known of me as “the swimmer.”
Athletic burnout could be avoided by focusing on self-care, finding ways to reduce stress and seeking support from others. I have changed my life for the better and discovered that mental health and happiness are more important than maintaining the status quo. Deciding to step away from such a consuming sport like swimming was nothing shy of taxing, but now, I have proven to myself that I have the courage within me to put my happiness first.