Share Your Story Series: navigating college sports
We often put athletes on a pedestal. We glorify them. We expect them to perform. We demand greatness. We celebrate their success. We take pride in their wins. But when they fail, when they stumble, when they lose, when they show emotion, we crucify them. They are disposable. They are failures. They are weak. They are worthless.
But they are just human.
My name is ellie buzzelle and this is my story.
NCAA DI Basketball Player
Being recruited at a very young age, I thought I had it all figured out of what I wanted out of a school and basketball program. I cared mostly about looks and records and not much else. Beginning of Junior year of high school I chose to continue my athletic career at a division 1 basketball program 1,000 plus miles away from home thinking and hoping it would be a fresh new start to my life. Moving away from home last summer, I thought I was prepared. I was thinking this is where I'm going to continue my life for the next four years and maybe more. Getting acclimated to the athletic schedule and new state during the summer was great but obviously had its challenges, none that I couldn’t overcome though. Getting a fresh new start and competing for a top spot on a collegiate team was all I ever thought I needed in life.
For those first summer months I was motivated, determined, a hard worker, and pushed myself to levels I didn’t know I could go. It was the most dedicated and driven player I ever was for 13 years of my career. It gave me the opportunity to start as a true freshman starring in my new young role. I was playing well, honestly a bit too well for myself. Even I thought to myself sometimes ‘why am I playing this well?” I was beyond confident in my abilities and effort on the floor. I was energetic, screaming, cheering, hyping people up, the kind of teammate I loved to be. I was confident that my coaches and teammates liked me on and off the floor because I was doing my job and making my shots (which was the beginning of the end).
It wasn’t until a few games later that I started to miss shots I’d been making easily the past 5+ months. However, I wasn't too down on myself, I just knew I could do better. I knew my body was physically tired but didn’t think it affected me much. I remember there was one specific practice where I missed a wide open shot and got called over to hear the words “we need you to get back to shooting good again” and “let's put someone in that spot who I trust to make that shot.” And to be completely real with you as an 18 year old kid, I was holding back tears anytime I would hear those things or get replaced in a drill because I couldn’t make a shot.
After a few practices of these things being said to me, I started to spiral. I started to get extreme anxiety in games. If I did one thing wrong I would think, “What are they saying about me on the bench?” My anxiety was at an all time high but I had absolutely no clue how to control it and fight through it. At that point of the season, my body and mind were not used to that amount of stress. I was thinking to myself “If no one here believes in me and my abilities, why in the world would I believe in myself?” I was a freshman. I had no clue how college athletics worked and I felt as though I couldn’t even find anyone to ask for help, let alone actually have someone help me. Neither did I want to go ask someone for help knowing they would see my weakness and darkness that I was in. I didn’t trust anyone to accept my metal health issues and not take it out on me on the court. I was terrified to ask for help thinking whoever I told would tell others in which those others would think I'm mentally weak.
I went from being a favorite, to being completely forgotten about in a few days. During that time in the season my energetic, cheering, crazy self took a step back and really started to lose the love of the game. I didn’t want to step into the gym, I sat as far away as I could on the bench, I didn’t wanna go shoot for fun, it all felt like work, like I couldn’t even be a human, I was a complete robot. I felt once I stepped foot into our buildings, I had to become this robot who puts on a happy fake face no matter the day I'm having or the season of life I'm in because it's what's best for the team. I had to be everything that everyone else in the gym wants me to be, not what I want to be or who I truly am. I had to fit inside this mold and standard that I was held to 6 days a week 24 hours everyday. I still had to give 110% of everything in me even when I was only at 10%. My happiness started to disappear on and off the court. My faith in Jesus that has kept me grounded my entire life all of a sudden was gone. Everyone around me saw it and yet no one stopped to truly help.
I was stuck in the routine of waking up, practicing, eating, and sleeping. While many may say “well that’s your job” and you're correct, but some tend to forget that we still are human beings. We still have feelings, thoughts, relationships, doubts, standards, etc that we feel on the daily. We still go through the trials of life that everyone else does, but to add a cherry on top of that, we have to deal with the expectations student-athletes are held to. We are supposed to give our 110% every single day for 5+ hours of physical activity and no one tends to stop and think, that's humanly not possible. We don’t get to have a “bad day” in college athletics and if you do, it most likely results in the people around you making you feel worse about yourself than you already felt when you walked into the gym.
By the end of our season I had enough. I didn’t even recognize myself, I was a complete zombie. Into the gym, eating, sleeping and repeating. I felt that it was wrong to think about anything else other than basketball. I debated for months, transfer or quit. I hated the transfer portal when I was in high school. I didn’t understand why athletes left a school they committed to until I went through it myself. I told myself I would never become one of those “transfer kids” until I looked at myself in the mirror, not able to recognize myself. There are things not shared to you during recruitment, and which rightfully so, but you wonder why there are so many kids in the portal after a year or two? You wonder why the mental health of athletes is getting worse and worse every year.
As a freshman I decided to enter the portal. I was terrified, it was the absolute last thing I wanted to do, I hate change and starting over. To work just as hard this next summer to prove myself over to a new team and new coaches? I didn't want to. The things I was told when I was leaving were “you wont get all the special things you got here,” “other programs don’t treat their athletes like we do,” “we give you everything you need.” Everything I needed materialistically yes, but not humanly.
I took time completely away from the game, no lifting, no running, no gym. I was done. I did all of that for the past year every single day and I had enough of it. I was determined to call my 13 year basketball career over because of what I experienced in less than a year of my life, it wasn't worth it to me.
But, in May of 2023 I decided to give it another shot and committed to a new school and have a fresh start. Now I'm surrounded by a staff who wants what's best for me on and off the court. I have people who instill confidence in me, not take it away. We may not get the materialistic things other schools do, but these people give me happiness, confidence, and support. Do I have dents in me that will remain in me because of what I experienced, yes. But I know those dents and bruises gave me a lesson in life I will most certainly not forget. As a college athlete it's said to look out for your team more than yourself, but if you can't be your best truest self, how will that help your team?
Becoming a college athlete was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. You're pushed beyond your limits and at some point you wonder is this all life has to offer? No. No it's not. Reaching out for help as a student-athlete might be the hardest thing to do. The term “mentally weak” is a term used throughout every collegiate athlete team, some use it the correct way, and some use it to make their athletes feel as though their mind is wrong in the things they are thinking and feeling. I want to be able to share my story to help those athletes and their mental health because so many are afraid to share their struggles. Afraid to tell their feelings, thinking as though it may come back and haunt them on the floor, or field, or track. Athletes should be able to trust their leaders enough to simply just say “I need help.” The mental side of an athlete's performance is more important than the physical. If you feel as though no one believes in you, there's no way you're going to believe in yourself.
As a player who has experienced it this past year, it takes a lot out of you. Am I the great player I used to be? No. Sadly there were things taken out of my game and mind that are hard to get back in a few quick months. Is it worth it? Honestly I don’t know. What I do know is that people need to start understanding the deepest things student-athletes go through. To help student athletes in the hard things they are going through. I’m here to share my story to maybe help another athlete out there questioning themselves just as I did.
Has transferring fixed it all? Absolutely not. The stigma going around with “transfers” is people feel bad for the program that they left. They feel bad for the coaches at that old school and how hard it must be for them but forget to think about how hard it must be for the athletes. I committed to a school I was supposed to be at for 4 years, maybe more and it was ripped from me. All the relationships I built, visions I saw for myself in the future at that school and state, all taken away from me. It’s been almost harder to move on than stay. Regain my position to a new program and coaches, completely leave behind the life I thought I would be in for 4 years of my life. It’s challenged me in more ways than one and I would say it’s so much harder than staying and fighting through what I went through last year. Does it get better though? Absolutely. It takes time. A lot of time. New relationships, new places, new everything but it’s getting better I promise.