Afraid of The Game: A Series on Student Athletes

By Katie Montgomery

The alarm buzzes at 5 a.m., but Samantha Vaughan is already awake. She didn’t sleep last night.

Again.

She slides out of her warm bed and tosses cleats and sneakers into a backpack. Right before she walks out the door, she realizes she won’t be home until 7 p.m., so she grabs her school bag too.

She doesn’t eat because she doesn’t want to throw up. Her anxiety is acting up.

Again.

Spring season is dreaded by Youngstown State University soccer players, with four to five days a week of high-intensity conditioning crammed into the early morning hours and late night team practices. It’s not unusual for her and her teammates to leave their beds before 6 a.m. and not get back until midnight.

Even without traveling every week for conference games, like they do in the fall season, Vaughan still feels like school is a secondary priority in the spring.

She wanted to quit within the first semester of her freshman year, but didn’t — mostly because she didn’t want to be seen as a quitter. She’d rather deal with this constant, almost paralyzing fear than quit.

It wasn’t until her junior year of college that she thought to reach out to a mental health professional. She was diagnosed with anxiety. She thought that her incapacitating fear, that often happened daily, was normal.

“I was always that kid that had to check things 87 times, but I didn’t realize that people don’t actually worry this much until I got to college,” she said.

While she doesn’t regret playing soccer in college, she feels that playing at YSU, a Division I school, exacerbated her symptoms. It’s an entirely new level of competition for most high school students entering their first year of college sports.

The upped ante makes many students realize that the sport they love isn’t about having fun anymore. For Vaughan, the difference was palpable.

She could feel the constant scrutiny from day one of preseason — she was being watched and evaluated for every kind of mistake.

“Every move is make or break,” she said. “I was surrounded by new people and in a new place, which is scary enough, but I lost all the confidence I had.”

That was a good day at practice. If it was a bad day?

“I would go home and cry,” she said. “There were times I was literally stuck on the floor of my room, sobbing hysterically, and I couldn’t stop.”

Other times, everything would start to go black and she wouldn’t be able to control her body anymore — she was having panic attacks.

It took her a year to talk to the assistant coach about it.

She had to rehearse the meeting dozens of times in her head, just to make sure that her coach would believe her diagnosis.

“I didn’t want to be seen as complaining or making excuses,” Vaughan said.

But the assistant coach, which at that time was Jennifer Montgomery, helped Vaughan tremendously, just by listening and acknowledging the problem.

“She showed that she cared about what was going on, and that really helped,” she said. “Even if she couldn’t fix it for me, she didn’t think I was a wimp and she wanted to hear about it.”

As another year passed, Montgomery had left the program and Vaughan felt like she was back at square one again. She never had a problem admitting something was wrong with her — it was pretty evident, she said. But even then, her parents had to force her to get treatment.

“I didn’t know how to go about it,” she said. “And I didn’t know what to say if I did meet with someone. I had to talk to my mom and write down what to say. I read that paragraph over and over again.”

With regular counseling and about six months of medication, Vaughan successfully finished her college career and has no regrets.

But she did wish athletic departments had someone athletes could talk to, someone specifically designated to do what Montgomery did for her.

“They could act as a bridge between the athletes and the coaches,” she said. “If something was really happening, they could tell the coaches or the trainer and help the athlete deal with it right. They could also weed out the athletes who may just be making excuses and complaining, that way the coaches would know what was real and what wasn’t.”

But when it comes down to it, Vaughan credits her small friend group as her saving grace.

“Anyone playing sports in college needs a small, close group of people they trust,” she said. “They’re the ones who kept me here and helped me the most.”

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