I had doubts the moment I signed my letter of intent at age seventeen. Not strong enough for me to think twice about them, but enough to ask myself the question, “Will this really be worth it?”
Two years later, I answered that question. I played my last softball game on April 20th, 2017.
My parents put me into Little Coaches Pitch at age four, a year early. Not only was I too young, but I was small for my age. If my jersey wasn’t tucked in, it hung nearly to my knees. I imagine my dad thought I was going to grow up a girly-girl—I thought I was a princess—not that I would stick with the sport for another fifteen years. Over half of those years I played with my dad as my head coach.
I didn’t care about being the best player in the world or the best pitcher. I cared more about enjoying the game more than performing well, even through my years of playing competitively. Sure, I worked hard ten months out of the year because I wanted to perform well, but if I had to throw out the enjoyment of the game in order to be more successful, then it wasn’t worth it.
At the beginning of my sophomore year of high school, I received an email from the head coach of Kansas Wesleyan University. He discovered me at a college camp the previous summer and boldly stated his interest in my abilities. Within a few months, I toured the school and made a verbal commitment to attend the school and play for his team, and I left Kansas excited for my future. One year later, I signed my letter of intent.
But around this time, I observed the changes happening in the girls my age who still stuck with the sport. For the first time, other serious players entered a more competitive state of mind, a place I’d never reach. I observed my teammates’ greater desire for winning than fun, resulting in increased hostility toward teammates who did not perform well, sour expressions rather than smiles and laughter, and more bickering with parents.
Several times, I wanted to yell “Relax, it’s just a game!” when players threw their bats on the ground or gave an attitude to a teammate who struck out or missed a ground ball.
It was the first time that I thought I might not have enough competitive drive to play beyond a high school level, because if I struck out, I’d say “Oh well. I’ll fix it and hit it next time” and I’d sit down and continue to enjoy the day with my teammates.
Beyond high school ball, it is no longer light-hearted and fun, and I knew it wouldn’t be. But eight years of tournament costs, equipment, and hotel costs did not agree with the wallet. My parents weren’t rich, yet they scraped up thousands of dollars in over a decade looking toward the future I’d just signed up for. So, I continued my commitment to be a college player, hopeful that the environment would be better, because I felt like it’s what I needed to do.
I walked in my first semester of college in good spirits and hopeful, and I soon found out that the head coach who recruited me had retired. He had been the sole reason I committed to this school because he was almost like a father-figure, and it was coaches like that I loved playing for.
His graduate assistant from the previous year took his place, a woman who had played Division 1 and overseas in Europe. A woman who needed to coach for a division one but began with an NAIA school. The type of coach I wouldn’t have chosen and my grade, the new freshmen, was the group she did not know and did not recruit.
Still, I kept a good attitude and looked forward to the season under a new coach and new teammates. We had 6 a.m. practices three days a week, lifting two days a week, and afternoon practices Mondays through Saturdays. They wouldn’t have been so bad if we didn’t spend more time in sprints than building our skills with drills. There is nothing wrong with running; in fact, it is important to building up the physical stamina for the game, but it should not take up most of the practice time. Eventually, it becomes too much and wears down a person’s body more than it helps.
I made friends with many of my teammates quickly, despite our differences in personality, but it didn’t take me more than a month to see that I did not fit in well with hardly anyone. I made one good friend that semester who shared similar views to me. We’d attend a weekly chapel and bible study together and hang out on the weekends while most of the dorm and all of my teammates were at clubs or house parties. Sometimes, they urged me to go to these parties, and maybe that’s what set me apart, but I simply did not understand how anybody found enjoyment out of it, so I stayed in on the weekends with an empty dorm room and a bowl of popcorn.
When a couple teammates got in trouble one weekend for possessing alcohol, the innocent received the physical punishment while those who admitted to consuming alcohol that weekend sat on the side lines and watched. This was Labor Day Monday—we had no classes that morning—and she could keep us as long as she wished. I endured some of my worst physical pain that morning, and for doing the right thing by staying indoors the previous Saturday night. A similar physical punishment happened again a couple months after that— before sunrise in the thirty-degree November air.
Before college, I enjoyed going to practices most of the time. When my dad coached my competitive team in high school, we spent most of the time laughing, yet we still got stuff done. We had the experience to combine work and fun in practices and still perform well on the field. The same goes for my high school team. Most high school players are not looking to become professional athletes, and I enjoyed playing with girls who joined the team to have fun with their friends, and I enjoyed gaining new friends each year.
Friendships from these teams were more important, and on my college team I did not fit in with the girls. It wasn’t just this school, I didn’t and do not fit in with the “college athlete” stereotype. This isn’t a complaint against college sports, but this experience only confirmed that it wasn’t for me. Soon after I returned from Christmas Break. I made the final decision to make that season my last season.
But it was not over. Not only did I decide to quit a sport I’d played and committed to for most of my life, but I decided to leave the school I was sure I’d spend all four years at.
I began to shift my attention from English to writing, and I’d already taken every writing class offered at the small university in just two semesters.
Before I knew it, I was on Southwest Baptist University’s website—the same school my brother attended—and I found that they offered a writing program. Within two days, I had the application on my screen with every blank filled in, but I left the application open on my computer. All I had to do was click “Submit.” But I had to wait, had to build up courage to tell someone other than my roommate. I had to tell someone who, other than me, would be impacted the most by my decision. My parents.
I can’t say that the decision was difficult, because it wasn’t. In fact, as big of a decision as it was, it couldn’t have been easier. The hardest part was telling my family and everyone else who had placed a foot into my success as an athlete. I only told my dad and waited for his approval. As for everyone else? I waited for them to find out because I knew someone would try to change my mind. At that time, I cared too much about what other people thought and I knew I would give in and continue playing against my will if someone tried hard enough to convince me.
I spent the spring semester enjoying as much of my last season as I could. It wasn’t easy, but it only confirmed that I was making the right decision. I didn’t care if I played for JV or Varsity. In fact, I preferred JV because it was less intense. Even then, while I did my best to have fun, the coaches and girls wore serious and/or sour expressions. I was yelled at for having my arms crossed in the outfield, faced sarcastic comments when I missed a ball that got lost in the sun, and my arm was overworked to the point where I almost visited a doctor.
A pitcher is not supposed to have more than three heavy workouts a week, five being okay if they are very light. That spring I was the only right-fielder in practice, and I’d spend all of practice consistently throwing balls over a hundred feet to home plate. Then I’d have a heavy pitching workout after practice. Five days a week, sometimes six. A month before the end of the season, my elbow began to ache consistently. I’d never had an injury before and I did not know how to prevent myself from tearing my arm.
By the end of three weeks, I couldn’t make it through three or four innings of a game, when I normally pitched seven or more. I iced it every day and it remained the same. On April 20th, our last double header of the season—and my career— I sat out of the first game for the first time all year. In the next hour, I drowned my elbow in Bio Freeze and prayed desperately for relief and only for that evening. When it came time to warm up for the last game of my career, I did spins for all of my pitches and threw very few half distance before stepping on the mound at game time.
That was a six-inning game, and the moment I stepped on the mound, the ache in my elbow diminished and I threw just as well or stronger than I had all season. My last inning was a three-up three-down, and I struck out the last batter of the game on a no-swing rise ball. A very rare occurrence for any pitcher, and the best way I could possibly end my career.
I had no idea the game was live streamed on the opposing team’s website until after the game when I pulled my phone out of my bag and saw a text from my dad back home. A message that said, “Great game girl.”
Two years later, I know that I made the right decision. Of course, I miss it, but mostly the memories I made and the people I met through it. An athlete must step down at some point in his or her life, and no one but me could have understood my timing. It was my time to step down. My time to draw the line after my fifteenth year and begin to enjoy my life in ways I’d never been able to before.
I still have two gloves and a ball in my car, and I take them out whenever I feel like playing catch. Although I am a retired athlete, I have a lifetime ahead of me and kids to raise in the future, and I know I will never be fully retired from the game.