Out of my five siblings, I've always been known as the tough one. While my youngest brother is by far the kindest, and my oldest sister is easily the most emotional (she cries during commercials) I've always shown a thick skin, oftentimes to a fault. My parents did an incredible job in raising us, especially given the adversity that we faced during peak moments of us growing up, but they weren't able to teach us everything (as no parent can).
For one thing, I'm horrible at admitting that I need help, or acknowledging that I'm probably not perfect (for those of you who know me, I know this is shocking - “she's perfect!”, you're all thinking). Well, like everyone else, I'm a hot mess - oftentimes without the hot part, which just makes it even more brutal. I've done an amazing job at stuffing my emotions into a box and dealing with issues by myself, but lately I've been understanding that this probably isn't the healthiest way to live.
Through no fault of their own, my parents aren't great at asking for help or admitting that they need help either, although they too have begun to recognize that this isn't healthy and are trying to change. They've even asked if any of us felt like we needed to speak to someone, although I've pushed away the idea, because it's always seemed like showing a weakness to me. Maybe I learned this from them, or maybe it was pre-wired into my brain to be so stubborn. Either way, showing anyone that I'm anything less than perfect is almost impossible for me. I care about what others think, am probably a lot less confident that I appear, and I grew up in an environment where excelling is important; for me, admitting faults equates to failure.
Tennis is perhaps the worst environment for someone like me. It teaches people to bottle up their emotions, because it's a weakness on the court. The environment is often toxic, and it's difficult to have true, reliable friendships because you're competing against everyone that you are with. Because of this, it's perhaps one of the loneliest sports, which leaves many players feeling like they can't turn to anyone except themselves when problems arise. Furthermore, I think that it teaches people to push down issues and pretend like they aren't there, because being mentally weak in tennis is perhaps one of the biggest faults you can have. How I deal with my mental health has greatly affected my tennis, personal relationships, and how I view myself (and not in a good way). I've always swept this under the rug, downplaying issues and not asking for help.
With Mental Health Awareness Week just finishing up in the US, perhaps now is the time to talk about how important mental health is - particularly for athletes. I don't know about you, but there are times where my mental health is absolute shit. Last year, I came back from Japan and slept for about 15 hours every day for four days, hardly leaving my room save for my tiny bladder. I wasn't jet lagged or sick, I just couldn't bring myself to do anything at all. I was completely miserable, and had zero desire to do anything except sit in a dark room and sleep. Earlier this year, I had to force myself out of bed to go and train every day for a week. I alternated between being incredibly angry and wanting to cry, even though nothing was wrong. I've had bouts of situations like this for a long time; I push everything down until it blows up in my face, and I've made this into a horrible habit by doing it for years and years, because that's who I am - things aren't supposed to bother me, and I always felt like I had to be stronger for the people in my life that couldn't be.
Just like learning how to hit a forehand, or changing your serve, dealing with mental health issues is tough to do alone. Everyone has a coach for the physical side of tennis, and yet many (myself as a perfect example) struggle to ask for help with the mental stuff. What's going to be with you for the rest of your life? There's going to be a point where you'll stop hitting serves and running down balls and needing that perfect footwork. You'll never stop needing to be healthy in your brain. Everyone has their issues, and asking for help doesn't mean you're that messed up. Therapists, family, and friends are there to help you, and this means with anything. If you feel like something is off upstairs, say something. Ask for help, and do the exact opposite of what I've done for the past 25 years. Perhaps think, “What Would Shelby Do?” and then sprint in the other direction.
Taking care of your mental health is important, and I'm learning that maybe I need help with this (as painful as it may be for me or admit). This doesn't make me any less of a person, or even less tough. It's just a part of who I am, and getting help will only improve me on and off the court. Talk about your mental health, and don't be afraid to work on it just as much as the forehands and backhands.
Former Hawkeye now playing tennis professionally; Journalism major.