Walking Away, Finding Balance

Growing up I’ve always had big aspirations for myself. Like many young athletes, I dreamed of being a huge star, playing in college, in the Olympics, all of it. I would feel super legit doing drills in my basement all through middle and high school thinking about how eventually all the hard work would pay off. I was driven by my aspirations to be the best, but I don’t know if this was because I truly wanted to be the best hockey player or because I wanted the attention it might bring me. Hockey defined my confidence—it was a huge part of how I saw myself. I knew I had many other interests outside of it (I never lived and breathed the sport like others, including many teammates of mine), but at the time it felt like the only area where I could prove myself, maintain my confidence, and be recognized by others.

I took all the right steps—went to National Camp, got recruited for college, traveled as necessary to keep playing with girls, trained on my own. The more intense I became about hockey the more I was pushing myself into the “hockey player” box of my identity. It wasn’t really who I was, but it felt like the most important thing in my life. I remember an ex-Olympian telling me at National Camp that it was absolutely ridiculous for her to weigh more than me while being shorter than me and that I needed to gain 30 pounds by the next year (I was 15, in the middle of my growth spurt, and also running the fastest for my cross country team I ever had at the time). And yet, it devastated me that I was so noticeably flawed as a player, that I was weaker than other top players, that I wasn’t as fast on the ice, etc. I kept training hard, but my confidence was always wavering during those high school years of peak athletic intensity.

My dedication to the sport came to a head in college. I dove in right away—I focused on eating well, pushing myself in workouts, and being a good teammate. However, I quickly became frustrated that all my college peers were experiencing an environment where they could freely branch out and try anything they wanted to while I felt very constrained by hockey. I would try to rationalize my frustration and convince myself that I was still committed to being the best hockey player I could be, but my unhappiness slowly grew throughout the year. Because hockey was so essential to my identity, I became convinced that my unhappiness was simply because I was under-performing as a player. I decided to push myself even harder and committed to doing extra daily workout and eating as clean as possible. I would wake up every day at 6 am to do a high intensity interval workout, then go to class, practice, and lift while tracking every calorie and following an ultra-clean paleo diet. I passed up social outings to be in bed by 10 pm. And the standards I put on myself quickly became unhealthy—I silently lost 20 pounds in 6 weeks while I continued to lose more and more confidence as a result of my sport.

I finally came to realize that I needed a change. I needed to find my confidence and identity apart from hockey, and I wanted to explore college on my own—academically, socially, and, of course, athletically. After years of parents, coaches, and mentors telling me what to do, when to do it, and how I should measure my athletic success, I knew I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do. And so I stepped away from hockey.

I left the team, but as a lifelong athlete, I kept the expectation on myself that I would work out every day, that I’d be even fitter than I’d been playing hockey. I started looking up all kinds of workout programs online and reading about different kinds of athletic training.  But most importantly, I just did exactly what I felt like doing for a workout when I felt like doing it. This included lots of runs, some biking, and weights.

While I never could fully commit to another organized athletic program in college, I finally felt as though I found the right balance athletics should have in my life. I was free to push myself in other ways—I started investing more in relationships and set my sights higher academically. I sometimes still feel the cascade of lost confidence if I think I am out of shape or not living up to my own fitness expectations, but that’s on my own terms. Since I’ve morphed my relationship with athletics to be exactly what I want it to be—how good I feel during certain workouts, how many pull ups I can do, how fast I can run, how far/steep/fast I can hike and not feel tired, etc.—there is a lot more flexibility, excitement, and self-compassion involved. I no longer hold myself to external athletic standards (heavy squats common of hockey players, how many goals I score) and have more control over the relationship.

I know I am still an athlete, it’s just not as formal, and most importantly it’s defined by me. It was a long journey to achieve the balance I needed, but now I feel that it complements my ability to push myself in all aspects of my life. Plus, after college, I’m expecting it will give me an immediate community of like-minded, balanced athletes (I’m a big fan of the adult running/hiking/biking clubs, definitely going to get involved).

I wouldn’t change anything about my relationship with sports, especially hockey, growing up. It’s what taught me to push myself, set goals, enjoy hard work, develop self-discipline, and so much more. But I’ve learned those lessons—I don’t need intense athletics to be there driving them into me anymore.  There’s a lot of other stuff I still want to learn, so I’m letting the athlete in me become less of a captain and more of a backseat driver in my life—it’s still always there pushing me to achieve and stay fit, but I won’t let it take my full attention. I guess that’s what they call balance.

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About the Author

Elena Horton

Elena graduated from Dartmouth College in 2018 and has spent the last several months exploring new perspectives with global travel before settling in Seattle, WA as a tech program manager. A former Division 1 Ice Hockey player, she ended her career early to find a more balanced athletic life. She now runs, hikes, skis, bikes – anything that gets her outside – and continues to develop her identity as a balanced athlete in her daily life. She hopes to encourage other young professionals to get outside, take risks, and chase their out-of-office passions.