I read What Made Maddy Run in two days and since I closed the back cover, I’ve been trying to organize my thoughts around it. This is the story of Madison Holleran, the nineteen year old student athlete of the University of Pennsylvania who killed herself on January 17, 2014. I think it’s important to pay homage to Kate Fagan, who did a beautiful job crafting a narrative around a human, not a suicide. She shared with us the story of family, growth, pressure, the cost of being a competitive student athlete and she did so with personal introspection, a professional journalistic lens, and respectfully navigated and represented the Holleran family.
For me, reading about Maddy’s life and death was like watching an eerie home video through a kaleidoscope. Her story was my story, with one very different plot point and as I start to ask around, particularly within my circle of former collegiate-athletes, that sentiment is echoed loudly. We struggle. Certainly some more than others and many at different points in their lives and careers; and a good chunk would have been dealing with anxiety, depression, and things of the like without ever having stepped foot on a field or a court. The other similarity: we struggled silently.
The dissonance between the problem and any potential solution to these topics is that their natures are inherently contradictory. As a student-athlete, a high achiever naturally and environmentally prone to anxiety and the illusion of perfectionism, I was raised, trained, and groomed to form my identity around my tangible accomplishments. Of course I was also raised to be respectful, kind, and loyal, but the formation of my self-concept was based largely on how hard I could push myself, what I could endure in order to be great both on and off the field. I was programmed by a competitive athletic and academic environment to keep it to myself when I didn’t feel okay and couldn’t explain why. When conflicts lied ahead, I learned at a very young age to engage with the discomfort and to work harder until I had achieved the desired outcome.
As a developing person, my equation for living looked a lot like this:
Hard work + discipline = achievement. Achievement = self-esteem = success.
I have always loved athletics, teamwork, camaraderie, sacrifice, and the satisfaction that coincides with really hard work. These things light me up and I can say the same for most of my former teammates. I know beyond the shadow of doubt that my parents did the absolute best they could to put me through the strongest athletic competitive training organization and help me to build a sense of self-confidence in the student-athlete I was developing into. But, in reality, maybe developing real life mental and emotional resiliency as a well-rounded human being got a little lost along the way. It’s no one’s fault; growing up with these cornerstone values has constructed a person I’m proud to be today, but it also came at a cost.
I was scared to go to practice every day of the week for the majority of my preteen and teenage years, around the time when playing competitively began to feel like a job rather than a game. Practices were grueling and regularly ran until 9pm. I was often physically and mentally exhausted, getting too little sleep to function fully the next day but far too diligent of a student to let homework slide or go late to school, I endured. I played for one coach in particular who spoke to young girls in such a way that makes me lose a little bit of faith in mankind as I think about it today. It motivated some people to be better and it motivated others to quit. Some cried, some shouted back at him, some parents got involved. There were a handful of us who were different. We had already been acculturated to sand our softer spots into sharper, more durable edges, to trade in our vulnerability, fear and exasperation for introversion and the pursuit of perfection. We took his words and we internalized them; his harsh criticisms of the players we were became our worldview about the type of people we were. I was small, weak, slow, untalented, unworthy of playing time. These are the things I understood about myself at twelve years old. I know what you’re wondering: “where the hell were this kid’s parents while this was happening and why did they think this was okay?” Like I said, they did the best they could. They wanted me to achieve greatness, to attend a college that would have been unavailable to me because of my family’s financial reality without the golden ticket of an athletic scholarship. Playing for the best was, in their eyes, the way to get me there. And if it wasn’t hard, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?
I never told a soul, but I eventually started trying to make myself sick before practices so that I could stay home and hide.
And in eighth grade, I decided that I had had enough. I couldn’t do it anymore and I was ready to quit every sport. My parents convinced me that quitting was too extreme, that I’d regret it in two weeks once the novelty of being a regular kid wore off. They reminded me that I was not a regular kid – that I was made for this and I’d be bored with trying to do less than I was capable of. I know in my heart of hearts that both of my parents love me tremendously and genuinely thought that they were simply challenging me to follow the passion I had declared on my own, but what I heard was this: “this is your identity, walking away from it is weakness, all of your friends can deal with the pressure, you are disappointing us, and the world expects more from you.”
From what I can tell, these are also the messages that Madison Holleran heard as she faced the same decision when running track became a full-time job for her at Penn. It was grueling, it was stressful, and it wasn’t fun anymore. Cutting it out seemed, intellectually, like the reasonable solution, but she didn’t know how to be herself without it. “High achieving student athlete” was her title, the banner that waved behind her as she ran, the only way she knew herself. When the precise lifestyle that has made us “ourselves” becomes the demon that haunts the inside of our heads, how do we get rid of it? How do you walk away from the only thing that makes you feel alive or special? And how do we talk about this decision with the people that love us, the people we really need to get it? How do we talk to ourselves about this decision – to learn about ourselves as beings worthy of love and belonging without the clause that has always made that true?
As Fagan recognizes beautifully, the precise culture that teaches us hard work, loyalty, teamwork, camaraderie, and dedication also teaches us that strength and worthiness equate to ignoring our emotions. As young athletes, many of us were celebrated for being “composed,” for pushing through physical and mental pain in order to obtain victory. We were taught that showing vulnerability, for admitting fear or defeat is synonymous with weakness, and it is unacceptable here. This paradigm builds disciplined, willful, high achieving student athletes and is also a dangerous combination when mental health is involved.
In a sense, I was extraordinarily fortunate to have struggled with my desire to leave athletics at a young age. Though thoughts of quitting trailed for many years to come, competing as a division 1 collegiate athlete felt like a privilege. An exhausting, draining privilege, but a privilege nonetheless. Growing up on the west coast and playing extremely competitively, the speed of the game slowed down for me when I got to my tiny liberal arts east coast college. I went from being a low man on the totem pole in the giant powerhouse organization that I came from to holding my own in the college arena. My setting and my competition changed and my perception of who I was as a student athlete was transformed. But the timeline of my story is perhaps a little backwards.
It seems that my debilitating relationship with my sport and with my identity as a student athlete came sooner than most and my struggles with my mental health much later. They didn’t synchronize, as they did for Maddy (and I’d venture to say countless other collegiate student-athletes who made the transition from decorated high school superstars to completely average relative to their high achieving teammates and classmates). Personally, and rather ironically, I went from below average relative to the competition in my youth to completely average, maybe even a little above, collegiately. I reverted back to loving my sport for the game it had been to me when I fell for it as a child.
These notes are my subjective perspective of the culture I was raised to compete in and the person I’ve evolved into throughout this process. I reached out to the friend who recommended it and I said something along the lines of “I just finished it. I’m processing a lot of things and I don’t know where I’m at yet. I don’t want the book to be over because I don’t want her to be gone. I wish I knew what more we could do.” She told me it was her story too – from more of a logistic point of view, rather than the honest inside look at depression and anxiety. It gave us the connecting bridge into an important conversation: what it was like for her to lose some of her passion for the game when she made it to the “promise land” of athletic competition and what mental health means to me – and the ways in which growing up as a student athlete has shaped my perspective. We agreed that the story was a little too relatable to be comfortable, which is precisely why it was so crucial that we dig deeper. We both wished we had read it going into college, and that we felt like it was our responsibility – as receivers of the story and first person narrators of similar ones – to pass these pieces of our soul libraries on to other people who really get them. It is our work to put the stories in the hands of another circle who understands and will advocate for these issues, just one more friend who might raise their future athletes differently, one former athlete who might choose self-compassion and love during times of emotional and mental chaos and despair rather than the toughness and silence we were raised to practice. We dream that someday we can build or participate in a forum that allows us to help prepare the next generation of overachieving, driven student-athletes know that it’s okay to struggle and to somehow construct resources to support them when they do.
I was proud to stand next to her on the field this day, watching our nation’s flag help us celebrate our favorite pastime. I am even more proud to stand next to her today, with 3,000 miles between us, starting discussions that matter.
We don’t know how and we don’t know when the next step comes, but we know that this conversation isn’t over.