“Susanna, you’re up next,” my coach told me as I looked down at my batting gloves. This was my last at-bat of my softball career, 15 years later, and I was the only one who knew it.
Looking back at the dugout, I saw friends I had made who supported me through the struggles of collegiate athletics. Their faces looked at me with confidence, clapping their hands to the beat of their chant; so loud I could barely hear my own heartbeat getting faster.
I was a Hunter College Hawk, I was a freshman, I was a softball player, and I suffered from anxiety. Hearing sayings like “softball players don’t cry” and “toughen up” repeated in my head, made the feelings of nausea and shaky hands seem unacceptable. I had to be tough.
It was the City University of New York Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) finals hosted by the College of Staten Island (CSI), our rivals. Before I was a Hawk, my teammates told me stories of the rivalry, and how we always fell short to their offense and lost in the finals.
History repeated itself that 2018 season, except I was a part of it. As I stared down at my batting gloves, I spun my bat and tossed it between my hands. Left to right; right to left. Calming down my mind before an at-bat was a different task, and difficult in every way.
I hadn’t had the best season, but finding out that after we fought to play in the finals, I was no longer a benchwarmer, but was the starting second baseman and seventh in the lineup, I was ecstatic. I never imagined I would have this opportunity, but soon the anxiety crept in. My coach reminded me of my ability, and I internalized my fears.
I stepped into the batter’s box and looked at the CSI pitcher. Her face maintained an intimidating glare, but I knew I had all the power. I choose which pitch to hit. I choose what is a ball and what is a strike; she is just throwing them to me.
I spun my bat in my hand and lifted it above my shoulders. I kicked the dirt from beneath my cleats and looked at her wrist. The ball sped passed me. Strike one. Anxiety began to takeover, but I remembered my job. My job was to make it to first base, and get my team on the map. We have worked too hard to let this go.
She wound up for pitch two, and I felt my barrel connect and flow through the power of the ball. I saw it pass to the left of their second baseman and I knew I could make it to first base. I stayed on first for the remainder of the inning, and ended my career with a fulfilled goal; ignore the anxiety and know your strength. We lost the finals that day, but I will never forget the positivity this sport has had on my mental health.
Softball gave me a type of strength that I would have lived a different life without. My anxiety was ignored, but my sport made it manageable.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association, and all levels of sports, must embrace mental health, and understand the benefits athletics have on students’ mental health. The third leading cause of death among student-athletes is suicide. We must shatter the stigma and better understand our athletes.