Pro athletes have it easy. We get to be outside, exercise and get paid for it. Our jobs only require 3-4 hours most days, so we have tons of time for relaxing and Netflix. While others are stuck in the office, we’re out there living it up! We get to do what we love, never “working” a day in our lives.
I actually believed that up until a couple years ago. The shift for me took place amidst a serious flare-up of an illness I have called Ulcerative Colitis (UC). Although doctors don’t know the ultimate cause of UC, it’s widely known to be stress-related, in the sense that it flares during stressful times. So all of a sudden, I was acutely aware of the stress in my life. And the more aware I became, the more I realized how big of a toll my great love, my career, had been taking on me for all these years.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s an honor and a blessing to be a professional athlete. To reach the pinnacle of your sport and get paid to do what you are most passionate about is something I absolutely treasure about my life. But there’s an unseen trade-off. A secret that we all live with that is hidden from the public, and often hidden from ourselves.
We talk about the brutal physical training and the sacrifices to miss out on social events or time with friends and family. But one area that is rarely talked about is the mental and emotional toll professional athletes endure. This is a toll that does not discriminate. From a petite ballerina to the most muscular football player, all pro athletes share many similarities on the inside.
Our physical performance, the culmination of hundreds and thousands of hours of work and sacrifice, literally defines us. We are judged — but more importantly, we judge ourselves — often by a single moment of execution on the field, court, rink or arena. We all acknowledge the pressure of these big moments. What we don’t acknowledge (or maybe even know about), is the baseline of stress that professional athletes live with on a daily, even hourly, basis.
This stress manifests differently for everyone. Every moment of every day we’re considering our decisions and how they affect performance. Go to a museum? No way, can’t be on my feet that long. Go to a movie? Well if it lasts two hours, I’ll get home around 11, then if it takes me 30 minutes to get ready for bed. That’ll leave me with less than eight hours sleep and I won’t feel my best tomorrow for training. How often am I eating? What am I eating? Have I been hydrating? Should I foam-roll my sore calf? Did I train enough? Did I train too much? Where will I be living next month?
Due to my UC symptoms, it’s been hard for me over the past couple years to be physically comfortable. Until recently, I would say that I pretty much lived in a constant state of discomfort. So now I am very in touch with the times when I do have the luxury of feeling comfortable. It’s a feeling I seek and when I’m able to attain it, I do everything in my power to hold on tight and savor the moments. This has led me to an epiphany.
I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in discomfort. Whether it’s been the awkward feeling of being the only girl on an all boys’ team, playing up with older players, tryout situations, I’ve purposely left my mental comfort zone over and over again. Similarly, I’ve pushed myself to be uncomfortable physically — trained hard, been sore, trained hard anyway, been tired, trained hard anyway. My emotional comfort zone has also been breached and basically thrown by the wayside as I committed myself to a life of constantly seeking improvement and maximization over all else, including stability. I took the saying “get comfortable being uncomfortable” to the max and basically ditched comfort all together, so much so that now I feel uncomfortable being comfortable.
As I slowly untangle the web I created for myself in order to sustain a 10-year professional career, I realize more and more the price I paid for “chasing my dream.” The constant emotional drain and energy expenditure goes much further than the time on the field or in team meetings, even. We are professional athletes, but above that, we are human beings. I thought I had created a path for myself that defied the logic of human existence. I could push and maximize and push some more and never look back. But the truth is, while pro athletes may defy logic in their performance, what happens inside us is very logical.
We certainly keep the secret of our full sacrifice hidden from the public. We hide it from our colleagues, and we even hide it from ourselves. And while it’s still a mystery to me how to untangle the web it’s created, what I know for certain is that this secret sacrifice is worth every second.
Yael Averbuch played for multiple teams in Women’s Professional Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League. She is the executive director of the NWSL Players Association. Yael announced earlier in 2019 that she is suspending her playing career as she works toward