I'm More Than a Statistic
Time and time again, in life and in Track and Field, you realize that it only takes one.
In a sport where one season, one meet, one race, or one throw can define an entire career, it can be difficult for outsiders to see everything that goes into the one. People see the number. They see the record-setting performance. However, very few see the person behind those statistics.
I’ve been throwing since I was about 13. I love it for a few reasons. It gives me a great community of people. It gives me confidence and empowers me to compete to win in all arenas of my life. Also, a pretty underrated aspect is that it is a quantitative sport. I can see my progress as it happens. As fulfilling as that can be, data can’t discern personality. While my progress is measurable, this measurement is oftentimes the only thing associated with my identity.
Data can't discern personality.
At the 2019 Outdoor Track and Field ACC Championships, I had the best meet of my life. The week before the meet I suffered a stomach bug that left me without physical activity for four days. Additionally, I had to study for and take five final exams.
Despite enduring a week of misery, I was able to make it out alive and well. I set a personal best, UNC record, and an ACC record that won the ACC title, placing me 4th in the NCAA rankings and 8th in the USA. That’s the kind of story which makes me love competing.
I remember sitting down with my parents to celebrate at dinner after the meet was over and saying, “A week ago I couldn't get out of bed and I just had the best throw of my life today...that really just happened.”
Very few people see the hours spent at practice perfecting the throw or the hours spent pushing your limits in the weight room. Nobody sees the countless moments you passed up going out with your friends on a Friday or Saturday because you were committed to practicing at your highest level. Very few see the many hours spent analyzing and thinking about the ways you can adjust your technique to get a fraction of an inch more on a throw.
But everyone sees - and loves to talk about - the one throw that became your lifetime best, season best, or the throw that won the meet. That can start to weigh on you. Especially when you’re still just a college kid with all the same stressors as everyone else.
Following the ACC Meet, I was preparing for the first round of NCAA’s. Heading into this meet I began to overanalyze and underestimate my technique. I was not confident that I would be able to replicate the big one. I was bailing out of practice throws that didn’t feel perfect. I was getting frustrated with minor missteps.
The weight I put on myself didn’t just affect my performance - it also affected my quality of life. I was extremely stressed, which took a toll on my everyday mood. My friends and family recognized my change in attitude.
My coach, doing his best to refocus my thoughts, said it best: “You’re going to lose a lot of good throws if you wait for the perfect throw.”
I didn't want to listen to him. I just wanted to throw further than I did the week before. I was convinced that every day had to be my best day ever in the training cycle. I was very wrong. We all have off days. But not everyone’s tough times can be boiled down to a single number that everyone gets to see.
So much of what student-athletes do is overlooked. Not only in sports but in school. Walking around campus wearing “Carolina Track and Field” on my chest is an honor, but it’s also a very different experience than I’ve ever had.
We’ve all heard the stereotypes. I know that some of my classmates believe I only focus on track, and I don’t go to class, and I have tutors and advisors who do my homework and take exams for me.
What I would like my classmates to see is the laptop and textbook propped up in front of me during bus rides. My name on the Dean’s List. The hours I spend locked in my room studying.
You might see the the training top but those can never tell you about the internal struggles. A lot of people don’t see the mental and physical exhaustion of a 5-hour training day, the granola bar I had for breakfast and lunch, the sleep I missed because I had practice before sunrise, the 2 hours of treatment and rehab for my back injury.
Nobody sees the whole story, because everyone sees the one throw. Sometimes, it honestly feels like nobody sees the person. Everyone sees the athlete.
In the month after that throw, that microscope wore me down. A lot.
I was ranked 4thin the NCAA and 1st in the East Region. Heading into the first round of NCAA’s I was a heavy favorite to advance to the final. When the competition came, I choked. I collapsed under the pressure and placed dead last, failing to advance to the Championship.
It felt like my career was over. I let myself down, I let my coaches down, my family and my teammates; I disappointed them all. I have never in my career felt like such a failure. After calling my parents to tell them what had happened, my tears began to dry. My parents did something that I couldn’t do for myself: they assured me that this wouldn't be the end of my career, but that it would mark the end of an incredible season.
They made me realize that I had more to look forward to in the immediate future than just track meets. I had a summer internship. I had a trip home to see my family. I had best friends to catch up with. I had projects like this very publication, UNCUT, and the Carolina Sport Administration Club to work on. Very few see the whole picture, but there’s a special few who always do.
Very few see the whole picture, but there’s a special few who always do.
I realized that my life is not defined by how well I perform in a meet. While in that moment it felt like my world had collapsed and everything I worked for vanished, I was reassured that there is more to me than just throwing. I was lost in the one throw that brought me so much success. I believed that my identity was tied to the one. I had become so engulfed in the big one that I forgot who I was and what got me there.
It took some time to fully adopt the idea that my self-identity is independent from my athletic identity. As student-athletes, we dedicate so much of ourselves to our sport that we become just the athlete. I am grateful that the major upset gave me the wakeup call I needed. Track and Field is an incredible sport. I would recommend it to anyone. But you cannot let it, or any sport, or activity, or class, or grade, consume you.
Overanalyzing every movement is unhealthy. I came to realize that I need to balance my energy and mindset. This season has taught me that I am still able to perform at the highest level after spending four days away from practice. I cannot consume all my time and energy on throwing. I need balance to be successful. To paraphrase the words of my coach, I am going to miss out on a lot of good things if I only pursue one great thing.
Not all of the pundits, commentators, or peers who surround us will have the same holistic view of student-athletes. I wish everyone could. But I’ll always be grateful that I found that view for myself.
Being a student-athlete at Carolina has taught me so much. But more than anything it has taught me about myself. I may not win every time but I can rest assured that those wins and losses do not define me as a person. No matter the outcome, I have an incredible support system in my family and best friends who see me as Jill the person and not Jill the thrower.
The next time you watch any sporting event, think twice before you criticize an athlete’s performance, or call them a name, or cheer when they get injured. You never truly know what is going on behind the uniform.
- Jill Shippee