My break-out season and my most difficult season occurred in the same semester. That’s the thing about mental health – it’s easy to hide.
While everyone celebrated my multi-goal games and Player of the Week accolades, I celebrated making it through another practice, another week. I didn’t feel like the all-star everyone said I was. I was tired, burnt-out, defeated.
I started playing field hockey when I was ten years old. I have my mom to thank for that.
On Sundays, after we went to church, my mom would lay out a picnic blanket on the sidelines for my sisters and me and we’d watch her play in an adult league. My mom never forced hockey on my sisters and I, she insisted that the sports we play be our choices. But once my older sister picked up the game, it wasn’t long after that I did as well.
Field hockey quickly spiraled into a family affair, as my two sisters and I all pursued field hockey as our chosen sport. We spent our summers training, coaching each other (oftentimes grudgingly), and willingly putting in two-a-days because we loved it so much. All three of us played collegiately. My family’s lives collectively revolved around field hockey – and still do, as my little sister wrapped up her freshman season with this fall.
I was recruited to play at West Chester University and began my freshman season in 2015.
I had a tough freshman year, I generally just did not feel like myself. At practice, I’d let the pressure of having to prove myself compromise my skill. Socially, I worried about making friends and fitting in on the team. I feared the Freshman 15, so I tracked my meals to ensure I ate within my means. I knew something was off, but I continued to rationalize how I felt by telling myself that’s just how everyone’s freshman year goes.
“College is a big adjustment, you’ll get used to it.”
While this is a true statement, my thoughts ran deeper than what I revealed on the surface. I spent another year tucking away my anxieties and putting on an encouraging face, though I continued to ask myself if it was normal to feel how I did. At the end of my sophomore year of college, I hit my breaking point.
The joy that I found in field hockey was replaced with pressure, fear, and apprehension. I put an outrageous amount of pressure on myself to be perfect, I feared failing or not being good enough, and I prepared myself for the consequences of what would happen if I did. I would count how many mistakes I made at practice and replay each failure in my head as I’d fall asleep at night. I would feel the weight of these misconstrued perceptions every day, I could not escape them. These anxieties affected my daily life outside of field hockey, they affected my family deeply, and my friends too. Too often I would ask myself, “why am I putting myself through this?” or “is this even worth it?”.
But as athletes, we’re taught from a young age that we’re supposed to push through difficult times, keep going when we feel like we should stop. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t keep going. I didn’t want to admit I wanted to stop.
After falling into a regular cadence of anxiety attacks and crying phone calls home to my parents, I asked my mom and dad if I could seek therapy for relief. And while those were arguably the most difficult words to choke out in between tears, I am so thankful I found the courage to speak up and even more grateful my parents were receptive and supportive of my ask.
I spent that summer seeing my therapist once a week and was put on anxiety medication as an additional resource and means of returning to a healthy state of mind. While I felt embarrassed to be on anxiety medication, it ultimately progressed my recovery.
But as the weeks until preseason began to run short, my anxiety continued to rise with anticipation of returning to an environment I associated with imperfection and failure. I was afraid to return to school. I was afraid to leave the comfort of my family. I was afraid to face my team feeling as weak as I did.
I had another anxiety attack the night I was meant to return for preseason. And though I was able to force myself back to West Chester the next morning, my anxiety remained high. I had trouble eating during preseason, I got sick after completing my fitness test (something I had never done before), and my energy levels ran low for quite some time.
I continued my appointments with my therapist throughout the season. While my teammates headed to the library after practice, I drove an hour home to be able to make my session in the morning. I maintained this routine for several weeks, but finally, one day, I felt a sense of independence during a therapy session. I finally felt like I had answers to my questions.
I had finally reached the point of understanding and accepting that I am who I am. I began to accept that I was born with a certain skill set and certain talents. I can grow these talents, but it takes time and they will grow only at my own rate, no one else’s. I began to accept that I am imperfect and that I will never be perfect. Every moment I spent belittling myself for making a mistake was a moment wasted. I learned that field hockey is only a sport, it’s not my life. It doesn’t define who I am. If I fail at field hockey, I will find success in something else. I learned that while I can only control so much of what life throws at me, I do have control over how I react.
This mindset is ultimately how I led my team to a conference championship and became an All-American that season. When I stepped onto the pitch at every practice and game, I was going to do what I could, with the talents that I had, and I was going to accept that that was the best performance I could give at that time. It wouldn’t be perfect, but it would be okay. And if I wasn’t satisfied with myself, I’d just have to try again tomorrow.
Now, one year removed from college athletics, I am still learning from the hardship I endured. As I sift through and digest these moments, I am learning to see the value and appreciate the fact that I had to face adversity during my time in college. Those battles exposed areas of weakness in myself as a person and revealed the parts of me that I need to consciously work on.
I’ve learned that even when I’ve been beaten down, even when I feel I am at my breaking point, I can overcome anything. The reality is that none of us will roll through our existence untouched by life’s difficulties. I’m grateful to learn these lessons early on, as they’re the ones that I will take with me into the workforce, when raising a family, and apply to any curveball life throws at me.
And finally, I’ve learned that there is strength in truth and honesty. There is power in acceptance. Acknowledging that I was struggling allowed me to get the help I needed to grow. As athletes and as humans, we need to become comfortable with talking about our stressors and struggles—because we all have them, it’s an inevitable part of life. And on whatever kind of spectrum we face these struggles, whether big or small, medical or emotional, it’s better to face them straight on than to let them build up as I did.
My hope is that some of you reading this resonated with my truth. My hope is that we begin to accept tribulation as natural and normal. And above all, my hope is that when we face adversity going forward, we’re able to face it with confidence and find the value in the fight.
Kaitlin Hatch is a 2019 graduate of West Chester University and former member of the field hockey team. A New Jersey native, Hatch was a 2x All-American, a 4x member of the NFHCA National Academic Squad, DII Honda Award Winner for Field Hockey, NCAA Woman of the Year Top 30 Honoree, and most recently, honored as an NCAA Today’s Top 10 Honoree. A marketing major and economics minor, Hatch now does search engine optimization for a digital marketing agency in Philadelphia.