From the outside looking in at my track and field season last year, it seemed like every measure of time and distance I ran or jumped was a great success. I was the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association indoor triple jump champion and 100m hurdles champion. I was voted the Most Valuable Indoor Field Athlete by MIAA and ended my season ranked 44th in the nation in the heptathlon. I also earned all-region honors from United States Track & Field Coaches Association in the pentathlon, heptathlon, triple jump, and long jump. That’s all great, right?
Well, what these accolades don’t mention are the tears, frustrations, and the many hurdles I had to overcome to get there and eventually make me the person I am today.
Many of my friends and professors whom I talked to gave me the same hard-to-hear advice: quit track and spend more time studying. And at that time, I thought that was the most sensible thing to do.
I’m an economics major and in the fall of 2018, I got an opportunity to study abroad for a semester in Freiburg, Germany, through the European Union program of IES. I was excited about this, but it also meant missing fall training and the first quarter of my official indoor track season. When I returned to Hope in January, 2019, I had only two weeks before my first track meet. I knew I was not in my best shape and so I trained hard. I felt like I was ready to compete by the time January 19th came around, but I was proven wrong. That Saturday winter morning had been bleak and grey and that was my mood for that day, too. My performance was horrible and could only be compared to my performance in my first-ever track meet. My next three meets were not any better and I got frustrated.
To add to my athletic performance stress, I was not doing well in classes either. I am on an academic scholarship that requires I achieve and maintain a certain GPA, so the thought of losing my scholarship did not make things any easier for me. Many of my friends and professors whom I talked to gave me the same hard-to-hear advice: quit track and spend more time studying. And at that time, I thought that was the most sensible thing to do.
Fast forward to the Windy City Invitational meet in early February. Every time I looked at the results screen, I saw the same shattering, disheartening results. I just could not run fast anymore. To make things worse, I no-heighted in high jump in the pentathlon at the same meet. My coach Kevin Cole kept assuring me, “We will get those times down.” But I mumbled in exasperation, “If my times don’t go down soon, I am quitting track.”
I was ready to quit. I really was. I even scheduled study sessions with my professor the next week during my team’s practice. It was time I moved on without track in my life and focus on my studies.
But something providential happened. God got in the details. It turned out that my professor could not make it to our first study session that Monday afternoon, because he was a speaker at a conference out of state. Somehow I found myself at practice that day. I skipped the normal practice session and only went to the weight-room session. Lifting has always been my favorite part of training and it was during this session that I realized that quitting track was not an option, and neither was failing my classes.
That is when things changed for me. I studied more and studied smarter. I trained even harder spending several hours watching YouTube videos when I was not on the track, weight room, or studying. Several times, I turned down opportunities to hang out with friends. But I knew this was the best thing for me to do at that moment. I was happy with the end results: several track and field accolades and making the dean’s list again. Yet these four important lessons that I learned probably made me happiest of all:
1. Trust the process.
As an athlete, patience is a virtue that if you lack, you must learn and develop. I had to stop overtraining and overanalyzing my results and become patient and trust in my training. The training process is not all about the weight room and track. It involves maturity, discipline, leadership on and off the track, and emotional growth. Did I mention that training was a process and not an instant thing?
2. Mental toughness: It is all in the head.
I spent several hours training on the track and several more in the weight room, working to improve my technique, speed, power and endurance every week. It is because of my abilities in these areas that my coach trusted me to continue to compete. It is hard to believe in yourself when things are not going well, yet this is the time when you need to have a positive mindset, self-belief and a champion’s attitude in order to perform well. Learning how to press that reset button in the face of adversity, forgetting the past and focusing on the challenge ahead is what kept me going even when my body told me otherwise. Focusing on why I was on that track or field gave me the confidence to keep pushing and executing.
3. Learn how to rest.
Taking a break at a time when you think you should be spending more time in the field honing your skills seems like an unintelligent idea. Sometimes though, our bodies and minds just need time to recover, rebuild and refocus. Psychological stress can lead to injuries, strains and can ultimately slow your body down making it harder to perform. Rest is an equally important part of training as it plays a role in building muscles and endurance. Not having rest therefore means that you are not training optimally.
4. Hang in there.
My final athletic lesson, which also turned out to help improve my academics, is this: Don’t write your story before it is finished. It is not the person who has the 30m lead or the person who has the 70m lead that wins the 100m race, but it is the person who crosses the finish line first. And sometimes, you just need to cross that finish line because it is not always all about winning, but giving your best shot.
*Editor’s note: Senior Mitchel Achien’g, a native of Nairobi, Kenya, is a six-time Hope College dean’s list student and a three-time MIAA Honor Roll honoree.
THE HOPE ATHLETES’ JOURNAL MISSION STATEMENT
The mission of the Hope Athletes’ Journal is to provide Hope College student-athletes with a platform to express their challenges and joys in order for coaches, peers, prospective students, and fans to relate to, understand, and appreciate their stories beyond their games. This project, initiated by Stephen Binning ’19, encourages and invites Hope student-athletes to write vulnerable, principled, honest, and respectful stories that ultimately knit our college even closer together.
If you or someone you know has a story that could be shared on the Hope Athletes’ Journal, please contact Eva Dean Folkert (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Lindsey Engelsman (email@example.com).