Alexi Pappas: Be a good teammate to yourself

With the track and field championship season coming up, hand-in-hand with final exams for high school and college athletes, it’s important to remember to be as kind to ourselves as we are hard on ourselves.

High school and college are hard enough. Studying for finals, competing in championships, memorizing your lines for the school play – all of these tasks are “hard enough” on their own. We’ve all heard the advice about how to best tackle multiple goals: make a to-do list, stay organized, plan ahead, and so on. But what I’m here to tell you is to remember to be kind to yourself.

What I mean by this is that as you juggle multiple commitments, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and build up stress and resentment, which will decrease efficiency, lead to more stress, and spark a negative feedback loop. But if we can positively manage our feelings and be kind to ourselves no matter how overwhelming our schedules might seem, we’ll be more effective at getting our tasks done and accomplishing everything on our plates this spring.

The first step is to recognize that it is challenging to balance school commitments with athletic commitments. Embrace that it’s hard! It’s okay for things to be hard in life. Recognizing that you have a hard set of tasks ahead can be invigorating and inspiring.

Photo: Alexi Pappas

Photo: Alexi Pappas

I find that the best way to maintain this perspective is to remember that everything you’re doing is a choice. You’ve chosen to be an athlete. You’ve chosen to be a student. So, during those weeks when you have less free time than your friends who aren’t athletes, just remember that you chose to be in this position.

For me, that’s a very empowering thought: when I’m in the library while my friends are out socializing, I remember that it’s my choice. I’ve seen some teammates feel like they’re victims for being “stuck” in the library. But that’s a negative perspective – they’re forgetting about the bigger picture. The bigger picture is that they’ve made a choice to be student-athletes, and there are only 24 hours in a day, so of course they’re here in the library when their non-athlete friends aren’t. With that perspective, being in the library becomes a pleasure. It’s something you’re doing to earn your life as a student-athlete, just as much as showing up to practice and working out. Getting into this positive headspace of choice rather than sacrifice is the most important step towards being kind to yourself. I specifically recall one midterm exam period at Dartmouth when a bunch of my cross country teammates and I decided to post up on a Friday night in the otherwise empty library. We chose to do this together and even though it wasn’t a party in the traditional sense, it felt like a party to us.

The next step is to take a close look at the hours in your day and determine if you’re using them well. I think of my time in 30-minute intervals, usually just enough time to get one small task done, and it amazes me how many “intervals” I discover in my day when I’m thoughtful and disciplined. Instead of checking my phone while I’m sitting on the bus, I’ll open my computer and get some work done. If I’m feeling worn down and I need a break, maybe I’ll spend that 30-minute interval on social media instead of getting work done, but usually if I’m being honest with myself I know that ultimately I’ll feel better using my spare “intervals” to cross things off my to-do list. I like to treat the time intervals the same way that I’d treat an interval of running: once I commit, I’m in it until the interval is over. This makes it easier to focus when I’m working and it also makes it easier to let go and relax when I’m not.

Another strategy I use is to determine exactly what I have to do and what I don’t. This doesn’t mean that I skip things, but it does mean that I try to work smart. I prioritize my tasks, and usually the first line of defense is saying “no” to opportunities that take up time in the day that aren’t directly related to my immediate goals. For a student, this might mean turning down social opportunities during championship season, or dialing back involvement in other clubs just for the few weeks of spring competition. Or it might even mean asking your teachers if you can work ahead on your academic syllabus so that your workload is lighter during competition time. It also means taking the time to figure out how you study most efficiently. Some people work better in groups, others make study guides, and so on – the point is that it’s sometimes easy to slip into working how it seems we “should” be working even if that isn’t the most efficient way for you personally.

I understand that all of these suggestions actually seem like more work at first, but really it’s just being proactive so that when competition season comes you’re not suddenly faced with work and commitments that could have been handled in a more efficient way. Even though it takes a bit of willpower to plan ahead and work smart, I see this as being kind to myself because at the end of the day, I know that I’ll sleep better and feel more relaxed if I know I used my time well.

And that is my ultimate self-kindness test: whenever I’m faced with a decision about how to use my time, I ask myself: “will doing X help me fall asleep easier tonight?” Some days, vegging out on social media or going out with friends really is the answer. But most days, making the choice to get ahead of my to-do list is the kindest choice for me.

Being as kind to yourself as you are hard on yourself takes practice. It’s a different mindset than most of us are accustomed to. Because being kind to yourself doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook – it’s just the opposite. It means that you’re having intention with your day and looking out for your best interests; it means that you’re your own teammate. Teammates hold us accountable, teammates believe in each other, and teammates always want the best for each other. This spring, be a good teammate to yourself.