Sports Will Break Your Heart.
December 23, 2018
As long as I can remember, even my earliest memories, revolved around a ball. Whether I was hitting a tennis ball against an unfinished wall in my parent’s basement (4 years old), or pitching to my Dad in the front yard (4 years old), or throwing a Nerf football through a hoop between a plastic goal post (also 4 years old), it seems that sports has been a huge theme in my life for as long as I can remember. Since the first time I lanced a spiral through the goalposts in that living room, I have been hooked.
I have been told that the key to happiness is improvement. I believe it. Whether you’re talking about improving a running time, a personal best in weight lifting, or trying to make a serve more consistent, when you improve, you are happy. That’s why kids are generally pretty happy. The world is one huge testing ground for improvement. Whether it’s art, writing, sports, poetry, computer games, or training an animal, the world gives us endless opportunities. As a young boy, and even now, I am fascinated with a ball. I love to make it spin. I enjoy making it carve through the air. I can’t wait to explore the angle I have to hit a tennis ball to make it “kick.” I have been forever aware that making a ball do “tricks” is not easy for everyone, and the repetitive nature of throwing a ball or hitting a ball better and better is completely thrilling to me. Curve balls, knuckle balls, sliders, slip pitches, fast balls, 2 seamers, the long ball, heavy throws, the deep ball, “go deep”, spinning it, spirals, arch, and accuracy were quickly added to my vocabulary. I couldn’t get enough, and I still can’t. To this day, after hundreds of thousands of throws, hits, serves, and catches, I still can’t wait to throw the ball around with a friend at a summer BBQ, or to hit a tennis ball around with my Dad on a hot summer night. It might be my flow.
I wish I could say that I am unique in this love/lust of sport. However, I am not. There are millions of us that can relate in some fashion or another. I have learned so many lessons over the years of spinning a football. I yearn for competition. I love investing in something so deeply that it makes me nervous, and trying to perform at a high level anyway. If you are reading this blog, chances are, that you have loved some sport or activity in this fashion. In some ways, sports is my mistress. In other ways, it’s is my loving companion. It’s my drug of choice. It’s cathartic. It’s relaxing.
So why do I bring any of this up? Last Wednesday was National Letter of Intent Day for many high school seniors who play football around the country. Wednesday was crucial day for many of the athletes that I work with personally. Some dreams come true on this day, some don’t. Some dreams are shattered. A lot of hard work, blood, sweat, and tears went into last Wednesday. Hundreds of thousands walked away from Wednesday with doubts, fears, and a feeling of defeat. A chosen few walked away with dreams to fulfill. They may think they have arrived, but there are so many triumphs and disappointments ahead, it would be impossible to explain them all. Some will take advantage of the new opportunity. Some will stumble with the pressure that undoubtedly is on its way.
This is why I love sports. This is also why I hate sports. Sometime in your life, somehow, some way, sports will break your heart. Not only will it break your heart, it will dash it into a million pieces, taking no thought as to how, why, when, or if it can be put back together. It doesn’t matter if you get cut from the 9th grade basketball team, or if you never put on a football helmet again after your senior year in high school, or if you get benched your senior year of collegiate athletics, or you are a Hall of Fame athlete that needs to retire. Sports will test your grit, your mettle, and sports will test your heart. As much as you love sports, it will make you analyze the very reasons that you loved them, and it will make you analyze whether or not your love was true. Sports is a great impostor, and if you don’t treat the two imposter’s of winning and losing the same (thank you Rudyard Kipling), the world of sports will gobble you up.
Very few people control or get to dictate the terms as to how their sports career ends. Brett Favre, Joe Montana, and Michael Jordan all struggled with retirement, and I don’t think, in the end, they were in charge of when they stopped playing. John Elway did it, John Stockton did it, but I feel like they are the exception to the rule. For many of us toward the end of our sporting days, sport is the hammer, and we are the nail.
With every victory and with every defeat there is a personal choice. You can believe what “they” say, or you can reject “them.” My advice to everyone that is facing “them?” Don’t believe “them.” Reject everything “they” say. It is a valuable tool. Do not believe the hype, do not believe the critic. Only you know the truth, follow your gut. The sports world is littered with gutsy people. They are gutsy because they never gave much credence to the praise, nor the criticism. Some people show guts by having the gift of being completely honest with themselves. Are you completely honest with yourself? Take courage. You know what you need to do. Now do it.
For the athlete who has had many articles written about them, and been on various recruiting trips, and have many around them telling them how fantastic they are, I ask you one question. Are you really as good as they say? Have you really worked hard for this opportunity? Or are you just gifted? Are you just bigger and faster than everyone else naturally? Have you really outworked the competition? Or are you a paper tiger? Is it predicted by many that you will succeed? Is it possible that you are missing that “it” factor that creates a champion? Only you know the answer, and only you know how to fix it. I would encourage you to reject the hype, and to reject the praise, and to reject headlines. It’s a trap for fools. Dig deep. Humble yourself. Be what you were meant to be by taking advantage of every moment. Right here, right now, I implore you to have people revere you for the hard worker that you are, and not how great/fantastic/handsome/athletic you are.
For the athlete that was rejected last Wednesday by your current dream, I encourage to to reject the negative self talk that can come as a result of rejection. Negative mental models are disastrous to dreams. Sure, we all have negative mental models. Some studies even indicate that 77% of our self-talk is negative or counterproductive. We think to ourselves, “I’m not good enough.” “I don’t have the connections.” “Maybe they are right.” “My coach didn’t do enough to get me recruited.” There are a million clever little lies that seep into your mind when you fail at something. My question to you: how is that working for you? Are these mental models helping you succeed, or helping you to fail? Are they true? Examine them, take them off the shelf, look at them, and then throw them out, or keep them. My guess is that most of the time, things are never as good as it gets, nor as bad as they may seem. Get off the mat. Dust yourself off, and get back to work. You have dreams to chase. You have goals to pursue. You have power over your own personal sports career. There are valuable lessons being learned, and if I had a dollar for every college starter and professional athlete who never had a “signing day” at their high school, or wasn’t named All-State, I’d be rich. It happens all the time. Why not you? Why not now? The choice is yours. It starts with a deep rooted belief in yourself. It can’t be faked, but it can be learned. Regardless of what others say, only you know your passion, only you can decide when the dream is over.
In closing, I would just like each athlete to know that failure is part of success. There will be hundreds if not thousands of failures in your career. Successful people fall forward. Everyone gets knocked down, they just back up faster than the others. They refocus while others are wallowing in the loss. Their self-talk is impeccable. They love the lonely work, and are so consistent it’s boring. Really, these lessons that we learn at an early age in sports become future lessons for life. Don’t believe me? Reread paragraph 5 of this article, and substitute the word “life” in for every time I mention the word sport. The lessons learned will last a lifetime.
Riley Jensen is currently the Mental Performance Coach for Weber State University Athletics. He is the director for Sport and Performance Psychology for Team X Alpine Ski Team. You can find more information on Riley at www.rileyjensenconsulting.com
Riley started as a quarterback at an NCAA D1 school (USU), was named 1st team junior college All-American QB (Snow College, where he was recently named to the Snow College Football Hall of Fame), coached football at a Division 1 program (NC State), and has coached several successful Salt Lake City area high school teams (Cottonwood, Olympus, Alta).
Riley earned a B.A. from Utah State University and completed his MS in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Utah. He studied under the world-renowned tutelage of Dr. Nicole Detling, and interned with the University of Utah’s football and tennis teams.
Riley currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. When Riley is not working, he enjoys hiking and time spent his wife Georgann, and their two children Alexis (6) and Jack (4).