I would like to give a little background on the creation of “The Mind of an Athlete” and share my story. In the media, athletes are often glorified at every level for their attractive physiques, mind-blowing skills, and having a unique mindset. Admit it, everyone loves the jock. But behind the glory, there are untold stories of challenges and mental hardships. The Mind of an Athlete sheds light on some of those challenges while providing both solutions and preventative measures. During this season, I sit down with athletes who have participated in different sports at different levels and listen as they share their stories about the benefits and challenges of being an athlete.
I like to lead by example, so before we take a glimpse into the mind of other athletes, I’d like to share my story. My name is Alonni Whitaker and I have been an athlete since I was 18 months old. I’ve participated in numerous sports; swimming, dance, gymnastics, track, soccer, cheerleading, and acrobatics and tumbling. I love to learn and try new things, so I participated in any sport my parents allowed my to try. The sports I stuck with the longest were soccer which I played from 5 years old until 12 years old and all-star cheerleading which I did from 11 or 12 until I was 17. Soccer was the first sport I fell in love with. As a child my family would go in the backyard and have boys vs girls soccer games which were always fun. Cheerleading was my second love. I started to love cheer because I had two brothers, so being around other girls was fun for me. I also thought tumbling was super cool and challenged me at a higher level which I found entertaining.
Sports have always been my muse. I grew up with two brothers who had a ton of energy and I was a little more laid back. I remember days when I just needed some peace and quiet, so I would go outside for hours and practice juggling and dribbling my soccer ball. When I was about 9, my parents got divorced which was a pretty emotional time for me and to cope I would practice tumbling on the trampoline or take all of my anger out at practice.
The biggest challenge I faced as an athlete was learning to give myself grace. I am super critical which is a blessing and a curse. It allows me to self correct which is beneficial, but without balance caused me to be unforgiving when I made mistakes. Eventually this led to injury. When I was 17, I got to a point in my athletic career where I was not improving as quickly as I wanted to. Instead of taking the time to focus on technique, I was pushing myself to do harder skills because they were more challenging and exciting. Eventually this led to me tearing my ACL, playing through the injury for 3 months until it affected my mental health, and not being able to compete at the biggest competition of the season.
During this time, I exhibited numerous mental health symptoms. I was staying up until 6am when I had class at 8am, spent every night crying in the bathroom, not eating due to stress, participating in risky behavior, constantly feeling fat and ugly, isolating myself from friends and family, and before I left my room would remind myself to put on a happy face to cover it all up. This was also my freshman year of college and I had just moved to Florida from New Jersey, so I was adjusting to a new environment and being far away from family for the first time. This behavior continues for months until one competition, I think it was NCA, I remember stepping off stage (keep in mind my ACL was torn) and having a panic attack because I felt like my leg was going to fall off. There was another competition I competed in the next weekend then scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the following week.
In the moment, I felt weak and like I was letting my team down. Honestly, until a few months ago, going to the doctor instead of pushing through the rest of the season was the only thing in my life I regretted. Now, I realize how unhealthy my decision was and stepping down was super humble, but something I should have done sooner. During my first week as a cheerleader, my coach sat everyone down and said “everyone is replaceable. look around, there are hundreds of kids who would love to be in your spot”. When I was younger, I saw that as a threat. I literally pushed myself to my breaking point to avoid being replaced by someone when in reality, part of being a good teammate is knowing when someone else is a better fit for the team even if it does not feel the best to step down.
I don’t think I overcame these challenges until I stopped cheerleading and started acrobatics and tumbling. After recovering from ACL surgery I did not go back to cheer. Instead I participated in acrobatics and tumbling at a college level. While the sports are similar, acro is competed at a slower pace and focuses more on technique and is a fairly new collegiate sport, so everyone came from different sports such as gymnastics, power tumbling, trampoline, etc, so we were all learning a new sport. This forced me to take a huge step back, focus on my technique, and so what I love most… learn. One big part of me overcoming the challenges of being an athlete was taking care of my mid and body. I became mindful of the foods I fueled my body with. Not necessarily cutting out junk food, but checking food labels and only buying food with ingredients I could pronounce tuning into how my body felt after eating different foods which led to me cutting meat out of my diet, choosing water or tea instead of juice and soda, and taking the time to cook instead of eating out. I also took preventative measures and recovery seriously. Before practice I would warm up for 20 minutes on the elliptical to make sure my muscles were loose and made sure I scheduled ice baths or contrast baths to heal my sore muscles. Another thing I did which helped a ton was reframed my psyche. I practiced meditation, removed myself from social media, kept post its around my room with positive quotes and affirmations, and journaled which was not a new practice. It wasn’t until I tuned into every aspect of my being that I was able to love and accept where I was in my athletic career instead of constantly pushing and criticizing my skills.
I was also a cheerleading coach for about 5 years and stopped once I went to school for acro. As a coach I am a stickler for technique. Sometimes I feel like Mr Miyagi because I’m the coach who makes their athletes do the weird skills and drills. I like to start every athlete at the most basic level and take the time to ensure athletes perfect each progression before moving on to the next skill. I’ve been called the mean coach, but I’ve also been called the nice coach for the same reasons. I believe sports are more about awareness and understanding instead of skill which is the mindset I had as an athlete. As a cheerleader, I learned everyone’s part of the stunt, so I could understand where and how mistakes could be made and recovered. I think that mindset is what allowed me to maneuver through different sports with ease and it’s something I taught my athletes (or tried to teach them).
Now that I no longer participate in sports, I stay active by participating in workout classes, going on nature walks, and doing yoga. I was never the competitive person who liked to win, I just liked to learn, so I started exploring other things I’d like to learn. I went back to school to get a Master’s degree and now I work on a mental health team teaching students emotional skills like mindfulness, stress management, and emotional regulation. I’m also super interested in trauma brains. So, I’ve been doing a bunch of research on the effects of trauma. Most importantly, I started Power in Humanity!
Having a mental coach would have made a huge difference in my athletic career. I have always tried to hide my emotions and be the person that others could lean on for emotional support. Based on the feedback i’ve gotten I did a great job at supporting others, but not so great at getting the support I needed. My life has been amazing, but not at all easy. I’ve always participated in 2 or 3 sports or clubs at a time on top of school and a mental health coach would have been great for those days where I felt drained and like I was on a hamster wheel that I could not get off of. Which leads me back to the beginning… everyone loves the jock. But behind the glory, there are untold stories of challenges and mental hardships.
Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Michael Phelps, Brandon Marshall, Aly Raisman, the list goes on. Athletes are constantly under pressure to perform. We love them at their best, but who is there to listen when they are at their worst? This is why I am choosing to make a change and going into the Mind of an Athlete.