Reconnecting to my Body after Life as an Elite Athlete

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I played field hockey for ten years. The first two, in middle school, were pure fun. My freshman year of high school, I realized I was actually pretty good, and from there I got increasingly serious.

About six of my ten years involved intense physical training; I ended up in USA programs and played on the top team within the number one club in the nation, switching to that organization after committing to a division 1 college during September of my junior year of high school. I retired about a year ago. We lost our conference semifinals and my last collegiate season wrapped.

An athlete’s relationship to their body is complicated for a number of reasons, one of them being that it’s our commodity. Organizations demand and we supply. We don’t train for aesthetics or longevity; we train for performance. It’s high impact and no matter how much recovery and cross-training one does, it takes a toll. Yes, I was fast and strong, but my joints won’t be thanking me.

Honestly, I’m pretty unathletic for someone with my background, and for someone who played a running sport- and not to mention was a midfielder, the position that runs the most- I really, really don’t like to run. I’m also not big on heavy lifting. Free weights, fine, but maxing out on squats and doing cleans (cleans are the worst) is really not my thing either. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking, maybe I just don’t like to work out? But I did it. All of it. I trained to make every whistle and hit my mark every rep.

The week after the season ended, I took my first yoga class, a free one at the campus rec. When the instructor asked if it was anyone’s first time, I raised my hand timidly. I looking around for another newbie but, alas, saw I was the only virgin in the room. For someone who A. does not love group fitness in general and B. was used to being a veteran at whatever workout I was doing, my cheeks immediately went red. I even thought about leaving.

I stayed. And I loved it.

It probably sounds like I’m going to launch into a story about my post-yoga spiritual awakening. I’m not, I promise. That hour, though, gave me back something I hadn’t known in years. Physical autonomy.

Again, the workouts that athletes have to endure are not done for us to feel good. They age us, our joints especially, and some sports, football especially, stand the risk of severe brain problems and even take years off one’s life in the long run. They’re intended to make us faster and stronger as well as mentally and emotionally “tougher.”

By nature, these workouts demand a degree of mental and emotional dissociation from our bodies in order to make it through a difficult training. We’ll imagine we’re anywhere but in our skin to make it across a line. A favorite character-building exercise of my original college coaches was extreme planking and to make it through we would attempt to have casual conversations with one another while holding ourselves in the air for up to six minutes, trying to take our minds far, far away from our screaming limbs. During sprints, I would imagine my legs weren’t attached to my body when trying to make times.

Asking athletes to separate the different parts of themselves- our mental and emotional body and our physical body- in order to perform fosters disembodiment. This encouraged separation is as unnatural as it is potentially destructive; athletics, especially on a level where it takes up the bulk of your time and energy, are deeply and inherently emotional. For peak performance, both as an athlete and just as a person in general, the mind is just as necessary as the body and taking care of both is critical.

Disembodiment doesn’t just happen during training or games. When you trade yourself into a program, you stop listening to your body.

Injury is one thing, but the everyday aches and pains that come from years of repeated high-impact activity have to be ignored. Our bodies ask for breaks. If you’re being paid in some capacity by an organization to use your body for them, whether in resources or scholarship or salary, there are no breaks unless they’re given.

I haven’t ran since I played my last game. Not once. I tried one morning, about two weeks after my retirement. I knew I wasn’t really feeling it, but I laced up my runners and hit the pavement anyway. After what was probably ten feet, I stopped; for the first time in years, I could hear my body trying to tell me that it didn’t want to, and for the first time in years, I could listen. So I did. I queued some podcasts and walked the three-mile route instead.

In a little over a year’s time, my body and I have gone from relative strangers to acquaintances to friends. Bodies go through seasons and I’m allowing mine to lean into change. I ask it what it wants to do instead of telling it what it has to do. I move for myself and myself only, and if I’m too tired or sore, I take a break. Or I take a break regardless of whether or not I “should” work out or not because I’m a human being with complete autonomy over my physical being and what I do with it. It feels good to be back.

a 23 year old who likes to ask questions with no answers

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