Share Your Story Series: What Happens When Our Dreams Don’t Live up to Our Expectations
We often think that gratitude cannot exist at the same time as grief, or frustration, or struggle. We often think that when presented with opportunity we cannot speak negatively about our experience. But, two things CAN exist. We can be both grateful and honest about our internal struggles.
My name is Rachel Blankenship and this is my story.
Professional Soccer Player & East Tennessee State Women’s Soccer Alum.
Ever since I was a little girl, the dream was clear: I was going to be a professional soccer player. The older I got, the less realistic it seemed. But slowly over time, with each step I took, each practice I fought through, and each game I played under the lights - the dream came closer into view. After four years of playing Division I college soccer at East Tennessee State University, I got in touch with an agent who was going to try to help me make that dream a reality. I graduated in May, and two months later I was offered a contract to travel abroad and join a team in Skövde, Sweden. And three days after that, I was on a flight. There was very little time to come to terms with the fact that I had done it: I had accomplished the lifelong dream. One day I was a college graduate working part-time at a pottery studio unsure of what my future was going to hold and the next I was on a flight to live in another country for the foreseeable future. It was everything that I had hoped for, and I was extremely proud of myself for making it happen.
Everyone was congratulating me and telling me how lucky I was to be given this opportunity, and to a certain degree I agreed with them. I was living in a beautiful new country with a beautiful host family who treated me like their own, but on the inside I felt broken and confused. As much as it looked like I was “living the dream” on the surface, it came with a price that I wasn’t at all prepared to deal with. This was the first time in my life that I suffered from pretty severe anxiety. I was putting on a front on social media and to the majority of my family and friends that it was everything I dreamed it would be and that I had never been happier. I didn’t want to spoil the limited time we had over FaceTime complaining about the fact that I was finally living out my childhood dream of playing professional soccer, but it wasn’t exactly what I’d hoped or expected.
I was playing the sport that I loved, but my schedule was not nearly as busy as I was used to compared to being a full time student and Division I athlete. This gave a lot of room for doubt and uncertainty to creep in during my off time from practices and games. Sweden was an incredible place to live in and explore, but being away from my family and friends was more difficult than I had anticipated. Talking to them was reserved for only short periods of time throughout the day when our differing time zones lined up.
Everyone I met in Sweden was incredibly welcoming and supportive, but the team I was playing on was not as successful within the league as I would have hoped. In a lot of ways, I felt like I was letting myself down. At times, I even felt embarrassed to use the word “professional athlete” to describe myself because of the sense of failure I was experiencing. I had a strong sense of feeling like I was not living up to the expectations that everyone else had for me. It was a complex experience that came with plenty of highs and plenty of lows. And while I had no issue sharing about the highs, I was hiding the lows from anyone who asked in fear that it would come across as selfish or ungrateful.
When that season and experience came to an end, I couldn’t shake the anxiety. Instead, it came home with me and has remained a part of my identity. I’m not saying this experience was the one single factor that caused my anxiety to surface, I think it was just the first time in my life that I couldn't suppress or ignore it. But I do believe the circumstances of my situation combined with the fear or unwillingness to speak about it definitely contributed to the overwhelming sense of stress I was feeling at the time.
When I returned home after that first season, I had no idea if I would find another team to play for or if my professional career would continue. In some ways, I was ready to move on and see what else was out there. But in other ways, I was terrified to face that reality. Soccer gave me a sense of accomplishment and achievement that I have yet to feel in many other areas of my life. Every aspect of my identity was weaved into this sport, and without it I had absolutely no idea who I was going to be. Soccer gave me the confidence I needed to carry myself into other spaces, so without that I had little confidence at all to go anywhere. I questioned so much of who I was and had to face the fact that I might not ever perform at an “elite” level again. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I spoke with a therapist and realized what I experienced in Sweden, and what I was still experiencing, was anxiety.
Luckily, I had the support from family and friends that I needed to navigate this time of transition. But so often, athletes are shamed into hiding their feelings about the various mental health struggles they are experiencing - a stigma that even I fell into by hiding my own experiences during my time abroad. I would like to think that my international experience is not the only one of its kind. I think in general, the experience of many athletes is universal and should be talked about more. Not only was I struggling with the demands of physical performance to prove that I was deserving of the professional opportunity I was granted, but I was dealing with a lot of mental and emotional pressures that were not really addressed.
Looking back on this experience, I would not change it for anything. It was simultaneously one of the most challenging and most rewarding experiences of my life. At the end of the day, I accomplished a dream of mine. I made the little girl inside of me who stepped out onto a field for the first time so incredibly proud. But what I would change, and what I am actively trying to change in my graduate studies related to the use of art therapy with athletes, is changing the narrative surrounding athletes’ relationship with mental health and the support they are given both on a personal level and within collegiate and professional organizations.
The expectations and standards placed on athletes when it comes to dealing with mental health concerns needs to change. Regardless of the mindset we hold on the field to fight through pain and battle it out for a win, mental health should not be approached with the same tactics. Our mental health should not be overlooked for the sake of physical performance, and it should not be looked down upon simply because of our sport or profession.
I am grateful that this experience has instilled a new passion in me to advocate for the mental health of athletes, and I am hopeful that as a community we continue to build on the resources that are provided to athletes as they face the various challenges and transitions that are inevitable in sports.