Why I didn’t quit my sport when it got tough—and why you shouldn’t either

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Why I didn’t quit my sport when it got tough—and why you shouldn’t either

By Ally Navarrete

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I used to repeatedly go through the school day only able to think about how much I didn’t want to go to afternoon swim practice. Every Saturday night I would go to bed with a pit in my stomach, thinking about my three-hour practice the next morning. My sport, which was supposed to be something I enjoyed, was a major source of dread in my life.

For the first two years of high school, I swam six days a week and doubled up on practices twice a week to go to the gym with my team. I swam with a group that prepared kids to swim at the college level—something I thought I might want but wasn’t yet sure—and I was miserable.

Every time I even thought about going to practice, I grew anxious and upset. I felt immense pressure to please my coaches, and I feared what they would say if I wasn’t swimming up to their standards. I had used to love working to improve my times in the pool; but as the outside pressure increased, I no longer had the same drive. I couldn’t focus on my goals or remember my reasons for being there.

My anxiety about swimming intensified to the point that I felt nervous to talk to my coach and even some of my teammates. There were days that I found myself swimming back and forth as tears filled my goggles.

Seventy percent of children who play competitive sports stop by age 13, according to a poll by the National Alliance for Youth Sports. According to the poll, the main reason for quitting is that “it’s just not fun anymore.” This can be due to burn-out, increased pressure from coaches and parents or simply not making a high school sports team.

I get why athletes quit. When I recognized my practices were no longer a healthy environment for me, I considered quitting multiple times myself. I’d grown to resent my sport so much that I didn’t think I could ever get back to loving swimming, and quitting seemed like the only way out.

But I also think one reason kids quit sports so frequently is because they don’t ever consider dropping down to a less intense level. After years of a sport practically being your life, transitioning to a lower-level travel or recreational team can feel beneath you or like giving up.

For struggling athletes, this mindset can be a harmful trap, often leading them to leave the sport altogether. But moving to a different level doesn’t make a person any less of an athlete, especially if it’s a healthier and more fitting environment.

At the end of sophomore year, I left my old group and joined a training group full of swimmers who love the sport and are serious about it, but who aren’t necessarily looking to swim in college. It was a difficult decision, but I realized that there were a lot of things besides swimming that I wanted to have time for, so I made the switch.

With my new group, I still swim nearly every day, but I have some shorter practices and more flexibility. I feel comfortable talking to my coaches and teammates. I’m now better able to enjoy the aspects of swimming that made me love it in the first place, and I find myself working harder than I was before because of how much happier I am. With a less intense commitment, I can swim for Whitman and my summer pool, both of which are less focused on intense training and more on fun racing and being a team.

Don’t get me wrong: there are still days where I get frustrated with swimming. Some days practice is hard, and I struggle. But it’s a healthy, normal balance of enjoyment, hard work and discipline—like a sport should be.

Continuing to swim has taught me invaluable skills—whether it be learning how to work with a team, exercise self-discipline or living a healthy lifestyle—and has been a major source of fun in my life. These benefits are present no matter what level a team is at—and these experiences shouldn’t be lost for lack of willingness to join a “lesser” team.

If an athlete aims to play a sport in college, it’s going to be a stressful process; but this level doesn’t have to be for everyone. Competition, hard work and occasional resentment of your sport can’t be avoided as an athlete, but finding the right environment can help alleviate the intense pressure and desire to quit.

Swimming doesn’t dominate my thoughts anymore, and it no longer serves as a massive source of anxiety. I’ve come to realize that it’s okay to let go of the intensity of a sport if it makes you more miserable than it does happy. I finally feel like my sport serves the purpose in my life that it’s supposed to.

I’m thankful that I’m not a part of the 70 percent that quit, but I hope that struggling middle and high school athletes can learn to take a more open-minded approach to sports.

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