Being a Good Athlete on a Great Team
My name is Hannah Kelly and I competed on the Duke Track and Field team from 2019-2023. As a recently retired athlete, I reflect back on my 4 years at Duke and vulnerably share my story with hopes of reaching someone who has or will go through the same thing.
I LOVED track. Yes, that’s written in past tense and here’s why.
As a high school student-athlete, track was my stress-reliever. It was my outlet, my escape from the millions of homework assignments, essays, and tests that the strenuous International Baccalaureate program required from me. While it may sound unbelievable, I found joy in waking up at 6 AM for practice. The adrenaline generated from running – and high jumping – was unlike any other feeling in this world. An even better feeling, though, was winning, knowing that the early mornings, the out-of-breath workouts and the dedication was all worth it. Nonetheless, these priceless moments were all 2nd in my priority list, with academics taking the reigning position. Therefore, as I headed into my senior year with college application decisions approaching, I began to tour different campuses (and no, not like an official visit but just through the regular academic tours).
As soon as I stepped onto Duke’s campus, I knew I would one day be able to call this place home. How was I going to do it? I really wasn’t quite sure. While I had the grades and the extracurricular activities, so did all the other brilliant students who planned on applying. And, as we all know, getting into college is kind of arbitrary. Almost as if by fate, I received a call during my tour from a family friend who convinced me to call the Duke Track coach. At the time, I told myself that there was no way I would ever be able to high jump here. I mean c’mon, it’s Duke. Miraculously, the coach answered, showed me around, and scheduled my official visit for the fall. It truly felt like all the pieces for my future were falling perfectly into place.
Fast forward to my official visit, I was told I needed to apply to Duke without any assistance from athletics. Because of my strong application and limited admission spots, the coaches wanted to get a “2-for-1” deal, getting 2 athletes on the team while only using 1 application spot. While I was stressed, I appreciated the coaches believing in my capabilities to get into Duke on my own. Long story short, I applied to Duke Early Decision… DEFERRED.
Immediately, I called the coaches to let them know yet heard nothing but silence on the other line. They were shocked. At this point, all I could do was be patient and wait the 2 weeks they told me it would take to find out if there was an athletic spot for me. The uncertainty of my future shook me to my core. Even if I did get in, how could I know for certain that I would belong? After a night full of crying and convincing myself that I would never earn my Blue Devil horns, I headed to school like any other day when an unexpected *ring* came from my phone: DUKE HEAD COACH. This is it. And only a day later?
I left the classroom a Bulldog and returned a Blue Devil. To this day, I don’t know if it was my numbers, both academic and athletic, or my character, but both the head coach and his wife, the high jump coach, saw something in me enough to use an admissions spot on me. And while the overwhelming doubt still existed, my excitement overpowered it, leaving me gleaming with pride the rest of senior year.
I walked onto campus my freshman year questioning if I really belonged at the Ivy of the South, but I soon found my place. I went to practice everyday excited to grow as both a player and a person, but even more excited to see my new friends. This was the dynamic of my freshman year team: everyone was just happy to be there. While we strived to get better, we highly valued the joy that this sport brought us; we saw the team dynamic as an opportunity to grow together.
However, this sense of unity was soon stripped away with the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic: our head coach was forced to retire, the entire coaching staff was wiped clean, and a whole new set of coaches were brought in. My high jump coach symbolized my hope for growth on this team as she had initially seen potential in me when I didn’t even completely believe in myself. Her departure from the team meant the departure of my comfortability and self-confidence.
"And, when I finally made it home, I dreaded going to bed because that meant I would have to go through a whole new day of this same cycle. I dreaded dreading life, and it was exhausting."
I tried to remain positive. Through my already difficult time through Fall of 2020, consisting of complete isolation and Zoom learning linear algebra, biology, and organic chemistry (why was I in 3 online STEM classes?!), this new coach’s lack of high jump knowledge and little faith in my athletic ability brought nothing but a toll on my mental health. Everyday I dreaded waking up. I dreaded going to class. I dreaded eating. I dreaded practicing. And, when I finally made it home, I dreaded going to bed because that meant I would have to go through a whole new day of this same cycle. I dreaded dreading life, and it was exhausting.
"After struggling to comprehend the reason for not being taken to any other indoor meets, I convinced myself that if I wanted to earn my spot at a outdoor meet, I had to be perfect: no messing up at practice, no misses at meets, and no failing to reach the bars that I had already cleared in high school. This fear of failure stuck with me."
Even through these low times, I was excited to compete. This was the small piece of joy that I had found, yet this too was taken away from me rather quickly. After a mediocre performance at the first meet of the season, I wasn’t given any other chance afterwards to prove myself, to prove that I am more than just the one height. After struggling to comprehend the reason for not being taken to any other indoor meets, I convinced myself that if I wanted to earn my spot at a outdoor meet, I had to be perfect: no messing up at practice, no misses at meets, and no failing to reach the bars that I had already cleared in high school. This fear of failure stuck with me. While most track athletes are taught to accept failure, to use it as a learning mechanism - a “stepping stone” towards success - I knew that if each step in my approach wasn’t perfect, I would never have a chance at competing again.
This fear continued to grow as I headed into outdoor season. This time things were different. I didn’t step onto the track with the joy that I once had. It felt forced. I stood on my mark with my heart beating way faster than what typical adrenaline gives you, ready to take my first attempt at the opening height, utterly shaking. The voices in my head soon took my attention: “there’s no way you’re going to make this bar,” “you can’t do this,” “don’t mess up”. These voices stayed with me. Meet after meet, I would approach each bar convinced I had no chance of making it, face the demons coming from my head, and then leave the competition with tears streaming down my face. These tears represented the failure I thought I was. The failure to jump high. The failure to believe in myself. The failure to find joy in my sport. But, I pushed through. I knew this mental battle I faced would eventually end. It had to, right?
Yet, my hope for better days kept dwindling. As if I already wasn’t blaming myself enough, my coach then suggested that the reason for my subpar jumping abilities was because I needed to “lean out.” I froze and immediately started thinking of the MANY ways my performance could have been better: none of which included anything to do with weight. I stared at her with utter disgust and walked away, yet thinking to myself that maybe she was correct (she is my coach, after all). Now, not only did I have no confidence in my jumping abilities, I had no confidence in my diligence as a student athlete, who worked SO hard to take care of my body. At this point, what did I know how to do? And while I would never put the blame on a coach for my own performance, she sure did ruin any sense of belief I had in myself.
By the end of my sophomore year, my love for the sport was drained. Ironically though, this was the exact time my team became THE BEST. In a mere 3 months, from indoor ACCs in February to outdoor ACCs in May, our team went from 6th place (a typical ACC finish for this team) to 1st (a new program record). While I was proud of my team’s accomplishment, this change in rank soon became a change in culture. This new “championship mindset” did nothing but solidified my fear to compete and amplified my performance anxiety.
"Week after week, I received an email telling me I wasn’t traveling, which led me to continue the self-doubt, which led me to perform poorly, which led to receiving another email informing me of not traveling. Experiencing this infinite loop of failure disconnected me from the rest of the team’s success."
As sophomore year ended, our newly hired high jump coach got fired. Yes, this means 3 coaches in 3 years, but I was excited for this change. Even though this new coach was the perfect piece, it proved difficult to reverse the negative thoughts, the lack of self-confidence, and the performance anxiety already ingrained in my mind. Despite my attempts to eliminate the negativity, it lingered on, affecting my performance and ultimately leaving my coach no reason to take me to the upcoming meets. Week after week, I received an email telling me I wasn’t traveling, which led me to continue the self-doubt, which led me to perform poorly, which led to receiving another email informing me of not traveling. Experiencing this infinite loop of failure disconnected me from the rest of the team’s success. In fact, I honestly feel as if I can’t claim the 3 ACC Championship Team Rings I have sitting in my room.
Senior year went a little better (emotionally). With the start of my final year on the track, I challenged myself to treat each jump as if it were my last; each step signifying a step towards turning any fear of failure into confidence, both in myself and my jumping abilities. Yet, in the first meet, as I was both figuratively and literally heading toward that last step, things took a turn for the worst. By simply planting my foot sideways, rather than forward, I nearly tore the ligaments in my ankle. Well, there goes the countless hours spent learning how to conquer my fear of competing. As the season progressed, and my ankle got worse, I learned to set new goals. Rather than hoping to clear a specific height, I just wanted to reclaim the joy my sport had brought me in high school. Although I can say I fulfilled the latter in my last meet, the persisting thought of failure still dwindles in my mind.
As I’ve spent the past few months reflecting on my experience as a student-athlete, I can’t help but express the sense of relief I now feel. I have begun to see the light again. I no longer dread getting up in the mornings. I no longer feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. I no longer reach the end of the day without a smile on my face. And after 4 years of self-doubt, I can finally say that I am proud of myself for the ways in which I persevered. But were the struggles really necessary? Despite my newfound love for life again, it truly makes me sad to think how much I used to love this sport, and how thankful I am now that I never have to do it again.
"There truly is more to you than that athlete label."
It makes me wonder if stepping away from the track could’ve prevented these thoughts. Despite being bred to believe that quitting is never an option, just like every other student-athlete, I think in this case it wouldn’t have been a bad idea. It’s important to take a second to reflect, ask yourself why you compete, and understand how it truly makes you feel. Above all, it’s essential to make the decision that's best for you, even if it means giving up what you believed your dream was. There truly is more to you than that athlete label.
While it’s difficult to express such vulnerability, I’ve finally decided it’s time to share the mental battle that came along with being only a good athlete on a great team.
- Hannah Kelly
Photo Credits: Hannah Kelly, Duke Athletics