Being a Freshman on Varsity: My Basketball Anxiety
“You aren’t worth a damn.”
“You are going to lose.”
“Do you even belong here?”
I slammed the bathroom door behind me and sat on the toilet. As my monkey mind chattered away (I called it my monkey mind because it is that voice that never stops talking), I realized how excited, anxious, and negative I felt. Really, at any moment, I could pass out. And tonight was a big night for me. It was something I had worked really hard to make happen. Unfortunately, this process came with gut-riddling nausea, cold sweats, and racing thoughts.
Granted, I was a freshman playing in my first varsity game. It had been a dream of mine since I was in seventh grade. But death was above me pounding their feet into a wooden floor. The fans had a certain rhythm, like a hundred thousand soldiers slamming their swords into their shields at once. I knew up there, on the court, fanatics were waiting for me to fail, standing vigil over their team with judging eyes.
But that’s what anxiety does to you before battle. It makes you think about every single angle, every single move, every single opponent, every strength and weakness and it loops in your head like a video on repeat. I couldn’t sleep the night before and when I woke up in the morning to eat my Frosted Flakes, my hands were cold, white, and shaky as I spooned the cereal into my mouth. My stomach churned. My mom was talking to me, but I didn’t hear what she was saying.
I was obsessing about the game.
Looking back now, at 37, after 22 years of having a basketball in my hand every day, I’m able to understand things that I wasn’t able to when I was younger. See, it wasn’t all anxiety. It was excitement too. It was this nervous excitement to do something I loved. And it was this battle between allowing nervousness and anxiety to swing back and forth like a pendulum and still move forward through it that mattered.
Some people may call this existential decisiveness– moving through the crossroads of anxiety, fear, and nervous excitement through action and meaning.
Fast forward to that infamous first-game-day in St. Ignace, Michigan. We were playing a team ranked in the top ten in Class C basketball. I had just been called up from JV because our senior guard had a sprained ankle, which meant, I would have to play.
The bus ride from Petoskey to St. Ignace seemed like eternal purgatory. The toilet episode had my older brother (a volatile all-state power forward) wondering where I went. And as I ran onto the court and heard the boos, and jeers, and cheers, I could literally feel the heat and energy of a packed gym, feel the unseen hope of thousands of people during that silent moment before the national anthem.
The music was always my cue to breathe and relax, shut my eyes and know everything would be all right– win or lose, fail or succeed, bomb or ace. It was when the music played that I shut my eyes, prayed and repeated bible quotes like: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Yet, even after my eyes opened, I hoped I was strong enough to run onto the court when Coach called my name. But there was so much meaning for me to play in the game that night, in fact, to play basketball every night. Maybe it was moving away from my dad (my mom had custody) and wanting to show him I was worth that long drive to visit us from Flint. Maybe it was wanting my mom to see me succeed and face our fears. Maybe it was my younger brother Damon (of six years) and his white puffy hair, as he idled by, watching me with gargantuan eyes and an admiring smile. Maybe it was my older brother Jeremy, who played power forward on varsity and had always been tough on me, preparing me for this moment.
Maybe it was the notecard I had made as a seventh grader and pinned to my ceiling that reminded me of my goals:
Play varsity basketball as a freshman with Jeremy.
Workout twice a day with basketball.
Win a state championship.
Play professional basketball in Europe.
This morning, at age 37, in my effort to attach meaning to my new life after basketball, I’m reading notes about Eric Maisel’s book Mastering Creative Anxiety. It is a great book in helping understand why we have anxiety and how to deal with it.
I think about myself as a kid, that teenager that felt like he is awaiting the executioner block.
That is anxiety.
Procrastinating, worrying, obsessing, and fretting over the blank page of my next game was in many ways like what anyone feels when they want to do something creative, something that matters to them, something aligned with their purpose, authentic expression, and future.
This could be writing a book. Finishing a painting. Getting a workout in. Playing in a game. Going to get a new degree. Going to work. Finishing a speech. Quitting your job. Giving a speech. Coaching. Creating and teaching a curriculum you believe in.
As Brian Johnson, one of my favorite collector of motivation and inspirational books says:
- Ask what matters to you?
- Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?
- Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?
- How can I make myself proud?
Good luck out there and stay inspired.
— Trevor Huffman