USA Field Hockey NEWS Sideline Stories: Na...

Sideline Stories: Natalie Shaker

June 02, 2020, 4:40 p.m. (ET)

Images Taken by New Haven Athletics

Content Courtesy of Northeast-10 Conference

Sideline Stories is a platform where Northeast-10 (NE10) Conference student-athletes can share their collegiate experiences in an unfiltered environment - using their voices to promote growth and positive change in our league and in all of NCAA Division II athletics.

New Haven field hockey player Natalie Shaker, Co-Vice Chair of the NE10 Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, shares her thoughts. Here is her Sideline Story:

There is a stigma created about student-athletes, that we are perfect human beings, that we can handle anything and everything that comes our way. For very few that is the case, and for the average student-athlete, it is impossible.

Every day the stress of balancing school, athletics and a normal social life continues to increase. We have constant pressure to perform on the field and in the classroom without a day off as we are being held to the highest expectations. Yes, we are required physical days off but what kind of athlete stops thinking about how they can get better on those days?

Being a student-athlete encompasses being able to perform both mentally and physically. Whether it is in the classroom or on the playing field, every thought and action matters. If an athlete is not present mentally, it will be harder for them to reach their peak performance physically.

I started playing goalie my freshman year of high school and very quickly realized how much my mental state would impact this position. Everyone always reassured me that the ball had to get past 10 other people before it got past me, but the pain in hearing the bang of the ball hitting the back board will never hurt any less than it did the first time.

Fortunately, I was taught from a young age to never give up. I was not a quitter and I would never give less than 110-percent effort.

On May 1, 2017, I choose to be one of the 118,000 student-athletes in NCAA Division II Athletics, and one of 6,000 in the NE10. The dream of playing collegiate sports became a reality. On that day I had absolutely no idea what I had signed up for.

Yes, I had just decided I was going to attend the University of New Haven, but I also made the commitment to be a member of the first field hockey team in the university’s history. I found a lot of comfort in that, knowing I would be on a team with other girls who loved and wanted to play this sport just as much as I wanted to. On the other hand, I was terrified to play field hockey at the collegiate level. Going from high school to college athletics is a huge jump and I was intimidated by the pressure of preforming at a higher level than I have ever competed at before.

I learned immediately that not everyone had the same mindset as me. In my mind I am here to work hard, give 110%, and preform to the best of my abilities. Having this mindset makes me very competitive and at the same time causes me to get frustrated when people do not work as hard as they can and push themselves to be better both on and off of the field.

My coach had to throw together a team out of nowhere to compete in the 2017 inaugural season. We lost all 13 games and even though we lost as a team, I put the blame on myself. Through my eyes, maybe four girls on my team were committed student-athletes who worked hard and wanted to be there. This was incredibly hard for me to wrap my head around. The other players seemed to be roster positions that just filled the empty space on the field.

We started our 2017 fall season with 17 players and ended the year with four. You read it right, four players were remaining and to play a field hockey game you need 11 on the field. I was fearful about how the next year would pan out after only having four players left. I was nervous that all the hard work I had put in would not be worth anything.

Even though we lost all of the games in 2017, I still believed in myself and my coach. I did not want to give up. I remember my coach sitting the four of us down and reassuring us she had a plan and to not worry. When the 2018 field hockey season came, 17 new freshmen and a new beginning for us was on the horizon. This year was different. I was able to share my love for the game and work hard with people who genuinely wanted to be on the field.

Although this season was a major upgrade from the one before, I ended up struggling a lot throughout the year. Everything was going as planned until the last month of the season hit. The losses hurt more than ever and school was getting harder. My anxiety was through the roof and I wanted to spend all my free time sleeping and I felt as if every time I was alone, I wanted to cry. I barely got through the season. The mental toll of thinking everything was on my shoulders tore me to pieces. I could not let up though because my team needed me. I wouldn’t let them down.

During the two weeks off after the season I took a mental reboot. I ended the semester with decent grades, and the people that loved me noticed I just wasn’t myself. I had a hard conversation with my parents discussing why my grades were down and what had happened to me. I laid out everything that I had thought or gone through from start to finish. It felt amazing finally telling someone how I felt and knowing they wanted to hear me. I was able to get support and feedback from my loved ones and they suggested I make a plan. I reflected and made goals for the spring semester. I worked harder in everything because I was so focused on improving myself.

Although I am not a mental powerhouse now, I have realized the mental health stigma in student-athletes is a real thing. I was scared to open up, but so relieved when I did. Struggling with my own mental health has opened my eyes to helping others and finding new ways to help myself. The school and everyone around me might have showed me all the resources to help myself, but it was up to me to admit I was not okay.

- Natalie Shaker