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By Honah Liles
“You feel like a little ant surrounded by giants.”
That’s how Ashley Trogler, now a senior at Spaulding High School in Rochester, N.H., describes stepping out onto the soccer field as a freshman. She was 14 at the time, brand new to the school, but a starting defenseman on the varsity team. For Trogler, making varsity as a freshman was a big deal, and something she said came as a complete surprise. She had hoped to make JV, and now there she was, a self-described “little baby” standing between the other team and the goal.
“The pressure was definitely there when they would cross into the middle,” Trogler says. “It’s like the little freshman is just standing there, surrounded by the seniors from the opposing team, needing to try not to let them score on you and it’s like ‘Oh, this is your time to shine.’”
Trogler is a three-season athlete, playing basketball and softball in addition to soccer. By her sophomore year, she had made varsity for all three and was already a captain of the soccer team.
She grew up playing sports but says it wasn’t until high school that she started to feel pressure to perform on the field. In middle school, teams were split up by grade, so it just was about having fun and hanging out with friends. But once high school hit, things felt different, especially once she made varsity.
“The pressure really kind of set in as in, ‘Okay, you don’t want to lose your spot here; you don’t want to mess up,’” Trogler says.
That feeling of being in the spotlight is a familiar one for Red Sox player Alex Verdugo. When he’s on the field at Fenway, the pressure is definitely on. “You can’t let up or lose focus out there because it can make the difference in the outcome of the game,” he says.
Intuitively, it makes sense that the pressure to perform mounts as an athlete grows up and the level of competition increases. According to psychologists, that pressure mounts when an athlete’s motivation for playing goes from intrinsic rewards, like having fun with friends, to extrinsic rewards, like trophies or the approval of classmates.
Most athletes develop tricks for dealing with this pressure. For Verdugo, that means focusing on the big picture to keep his head in the game. “Mistakes do happen and that’s part of life, but you need to have a short memory in this game and let it go because if you dwell on it, another one is going to follow,” he says.
Edward Lundy, a senior marketing major at UMass Dartmouth and a member of the men’s track and field team, has his routine down to an art.
“I always keep a playlist of Nat King Cole [and] Herbie Hancock in my back pocket,” he says. Ahead of a meet, he puts on his noise-canceling headphones and turns on the music, blocking out the world as he warms up.
“I kind of Zen out to it,” he says. “I just put myself in a completely different world while I’m listening to the music.”
At first glance, you might not assume Lundy is a runner. He describes himself as short and stocky and says on a good day, he stands anywhere between 5’7” and 5’8”. He didn’t even start running track until his junior year at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, Mass., when a teacher suggested he give it a try.
At first, he was reluctant. “When I first thought about running, the first thing I initially thought of was cross country, and I said ‘I’m not built for that!’” he says.
Now, five years later, his events include the 60-meter dash, the 100-meter dash, and the 200-meter dash — and he hopes to keep running after he graduates. He would even like to continue participating in meets as an unattached runner.
“There are moments where I’m running in my event and it seems like I’m running on a cloud and I have tunnel vision,” says Lundy.
Hearing about the students’ stories, Verdugo shares advice on getting that “running on a cloud” feeling, no matter your sport. “Take a deep breath, take that extra moment before you step into the batter’s box or up to the free-throw line … and visualize what you are trying to accomplish,” he says. “As athletes, we are not going to achieve success every single time, but having that understanding helps deal with the pressure that we face.”
While Lundy gets into that optimal running zone by Zen-ing out to his music, another short sprinter has a slightly different routine. Jared Selby puts in his AirPods, turns up ‘End of Time’ by Beyoncé, and turns on the moves.
“As I’m getting off the bus, I’m dancing like a fool walking into the building,” Selby says, describing one particular meet in Boston two years ago. “Everybody was looking at me all crazy-like, as you would look at somebody that you can’t hear their music, just dancing around crazy.”
You won’t see Selby and Lundy at the same meets. Selby, 17, is a three-season cross country and track athlete at Medway High School in Medway, Mass., and doesn’t plan to run track in college. Like Lundy, he describes himself as short and stocky, and prefers sprints to cross country. Also like Lundy, he hasn’t always run track.
“I remember as a kid I always sort of felt fast, but I never really understood that there was a sport for that for a while,” he says.
Instead, Selby played soccer, basketball, and baseball, although he dropped the latter sport after a few years. It was in middle school that he started running track, and found success. With success, came pressure to perform.
In seventh grade, his team placed in the top eight for the 4×100 meter relay at the Massachusetts Middle School Track and Field State Championship. In eighth grade, they won that race. That’s one of the first times Selby remembers really feeling the pressure, and it followed him into high school.
That pressure was highest in sports where he excelled, he says, like track and soccer. In contrast, basketball for Selby was just about having fun. He says he started it later than everyone else and was always just playing catch up, but that actually took the pressure off. It was similar in cross country, which he didn’t start until junior year. Because he was starting late and didn’t consider himself a distance runner, he didn’t have high expectations for himself.
Maybe that’s why “dancing a fool” helps take the pressure off when it comes to track meets, too. That meet where he listened to Beyoncé? He says he just kept it on a loop, listening over and over, sharing his AirPods with his teammates, and dancing together between events. It was one of the first meets where he felt really successful.
“That was sort of the first time I was able to get super into a meet in the way that I was hoping to,” he said.
One piece of advice from his coach that helps, he says, is to set individual time or distance goals and focus on that, rather than setting a placement goal for a race.
“You can control your own race,” Selby says. “You can’t control other people’s races or how fast they run or how well they perform.”
That’s advice that’s echoed by both Lundy and Trogler.
Trogler says after four years of playing varsity sports, she still feels the pressure, especially now that there are younger teammates looking up to her. The best thing you can do, she says, is trust your training.
“You just kind of need to shut your mind down and just remember you’re out there to play a sport that you’ve been playing your whole life,” she says.
That’s a tip even the pros follow. “Baseball is a game of failure where if you are successful only 30 percent of the time over the course of your career, you are likely going to the Hall of Fame,” says Verdugo. “It comes down to being comfortable with myself, my preparation, and knowing that I’m doing everything I can to be the best.”
Lundy warns that when you start worrying too much about your competition, that’s when the pressure creeps in.
“The reason why the pressure might be getting to you is you see your competitors you know, having better performances and you feel like you can’t stack up to them,” Lundy says. “But if you put in the long hours to be on the same stage that they’re on, you’re worthy of the same notoriety as them too.”
In the end, whether they’re on JV or in the MLB, athletes being open about the pressures face is important when it comes to whole health — mind and body. Talking about mental health can help off the field, too. “Everyone in this world, whether they admit it or not, experiences pressure and anxiety to perform,” says Verdugo. “Thankfully, more and more people are being outspoken about those experiences and I think it is giving people comfort to talk about what they are going through and that is a huge step in the right direction.”
From digital tools to access to therapy, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan are committed to helping members connect with the care they need.
Header photo: Alex Verdugo at Fenway Park. JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF
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