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Gratitude and Grief Can Coexist

Amanda Dahlman, Hope for Athletes
Guest Blogger
Being a student-athlete was equally the best, and worst time of my life. As I’ve reflected and processed through my journey, I recall countless memories of deep joy, but I also recall moments of excruciating pain. Throughout high school I put a significant amount of pressure on myself to perform perfectly, which was unsustainable and eventually led to performance anxiety and burnout.
At the beginning of college, I began to realize that being a student-athlete was so much bigger than simply playing volleyball games.

Being a student–athlete allowed me to meet some of the most incredible human beings, also known as my teammates. But these girls were far more than just teammates to me, they were — and still are — my second family. From growing together as athletes, friends, students, roommates, these relationships molded and shaped me into the person I am today. It was and still is a great privilege to learn from them, their hearts and their stories.

Being a student-athlete also gave me the opportunity to serve others, from going on a team missions trip to Tenerife, Spain, to writing letters of encouragement to opposing teams, to providing a listening ear to struggling teammates.

The last two years of my volleyball career were extremely tough, for many different reasons. Within a span of 3 months, a former club volleyball teammate of mine died by homicide, I experienced a sexual assault, the world shut down because of the pandemic, I went through a breakup, and then I was repeatedly humiliated, controlled, threatened, criticized and gaslighted by a coach who was upset with me for confiding in another school employee regarding the sexual assault. While I could list out the comments that were made to me over the phone and in person, I’m actively choosing to direct my energy into helping and advocating for others instead.

In hindsight, I wish I had either stood up for myself in front of that coach or walked away from the sport. But as I have begun to learn more about what happens to the brain and body when encountering trauma, it has given me a newfound sense of compassion for myself.

Because my sense of safety was threatened, in order to protect myself from further harm, my brain defaulted into survival mode. Survival mode taught me to blame myself for everything. Survival mode taught me to silence my voice. Hide. Don’t upset anyone. Survival mode taught me to keep myself occupied in order to be distracted from reality.

This way of functioning lasted for over a year, until I finished out my fifth season and headed home. I ended up winning first team all-conference, as well as conference defensive player of the year during this final season. From the outside looking in, people thought I was thriving, but that was far from the truth. In actuality, I was crying nearly every night, experiencing a handful of depressive symptoms, having weekly panic attacks, contemplating quitting the team, and praying that the season would end as soon as possible. My life legitimately felt like a living nightmare.

Since coming home, I have gradually been able to shift out of survival mode, due to being in environments where I feel emotionally and physically safe. I knew this shift was taking place once I regained the ability to reflect on the past, instead of always trying to forget it ever happened. I also knew this shift was taking place when I started speaking up for myself instead of compulsively agreeing with others to keep the peace. Healing has not been a linear process. I’ve processed and wrestled through my story with mentors, counselors, and friends, which has been agonizing, but also needed.

In time, my anxiety attacks and depression have slowly diminished. With the help and encouragement from my counselor and a few close friends I started a platform on Instagram, called Hope for Athletes, that promotes and advocates for student-athlete mental health awareness by creating a space for athletes to share their stories. Creating Hope for Athletes and going public with my story pushed me well beyond my comfort zone, and was probably one of the scariest things I have ever done in my life.

Nonetheless, taking these risks has turned out to be incredibly impactful for my healing process because so many athletes have reached out and said, “me too.” I am not alone, they are not alone, and we are stronger together.

As many of you know, a number of NCAA student-athletes have taken their lives, especially over the past year. Some of their names are Julia Pernsteiner, Sarah Shulze, Lauren Bernett, Robert Martin, Arlana Miller, and Jayden Hill. I cannot help but wonder if some of these suicides were partially caused by having to play under toxic and/or abusive authority figures. I personally think it is something worth considering. I also believe it is something worth addressing.

To all the coaches out there, please use your words carefully. Your words can speak life, but they can also speak death. Remember that athletes are human beings with hearts, feelings, dreams, and lives outside of sports, too. The mental health crisis among student-athletes is a pandemic. Please check in with your athletes, not because you’re supposed to, but because they matter. Provide support in ways that are beneficial to them and support their autonomy! When athletes do not have control, they lose the capacity to cope. Athletes have to know that they have a voice and a choice!

To athletes who have or are experiencing maltreatment of any kind, please know that it was and is not your fault. Nothing you had to endure can be justified. Not too long ago, my mentor told me to give myself grace and that is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve received along the way. So, I want to pass it along to you. Give yourself grace. You are so deserving of it! Please know you have permission to choose to walk away if it’s best for you and your mental health. Your pain is valid and it doesn’t have to make sense to other people for it to be real. You are more than what happened to you. You deserve justice. You are a survivor, even if you feel like a victim or you never told anybody. You deserve to be safe in sport. I see you, you’re so loved and you’re not alone.

In terms of my career, I am only one year away from completing my Master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and I strongly believe these experiences have made me more empathetic, aware and educated, not only as a counselor-in-training but also as a friend, sister, daughter and coach. I am lucky enough to have people in my life who want me to heal, not because they’re uncomfortable with my pain, but because they believe I’m worthy of it. My hope and prayer is that all athletes can have these kinds of people in their lives, too.

If you’re struggling with your mental health or think you might be in a harmful environment, please reach out for help! You are worth it, you matter, and you do not have to do this alone. You deserve to feel heard. Your story is meant to be brought into the light when you’re ready to tell it.

I share my story because I want you to know that whether your story is one of joy, struggle, or both, it matters. My story is filled with mixed emotions, and sometimes that is difficult and confusing to sit in. I want to acknowledge that gratitude and grief do not cancel each other out. Rather, they exist side by side. I am grateful I had the opportunity to be a student-athlete and for all the meaningful moments, relationships, and blessings that came with it. I am also heartbroken and grieved over the injustices and trauma I experienced during that difficult time in my life. I am continually learning that good things and horrible things can occupy the same space — and that is okay.


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