Performance under pressure: How student-athletes deal with stresses in sport

Niwot High School gymnast Mia Curry ...
Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer
Niwot gymnast Mia Curry, a Class 4A state champion, still struggles like many of her counterparts with the perfectionist mentality associated with the sport.

This wasn’t supposed to be the way Erie guard Jackson Clancy would spend his junior football season.

Clancy, who’s being recruited by multiple Division-I collegiate programs, was supposed to take another step toward his dream of playing at the next level. He was meant to shine for his Tiger teammates.

He certainly didn’t plan on spending each practice and game on the sidelines with a massive scar on his knee. Clancy’s season ended before it began when he planted his foot wrong and twisted his knee during the team’s preseason scrimmage.

“I walked into my mom on the phone with the doctor and she had her computer up and she had ‘torn ACL’ searched up all the way,” Clancy said. “I just walked out and closed my door and just shut everybody out for like a whole two days. I was just in shock and awe. It was horrible. All that hard work just washed away.”

Now all he can do is watch his teammates make a dominant, undefeated run late into the season.

Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com
Erie junior Jackson Clancy had to miss the entire 2021 football season after suffering an ACL tear prior to the Tigers’ first game. (Photo by Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com)

“It’s been pretty depressing,” Clancy said. “Besides (a few weeks ago), I have no motivation to work out, go to practice. I just want to stay home. I just close out everything. Football has been my passion and has been what I’ve been doing since first grade. … Everything revolves around football. All my hard work in the offseason is for football. To just have that all wasted is crushing.”

When superstar gymnast Simone Biles pulled herself from the delayed 2020 Olympic Games this past summer due to mental health struggles, it ignited a conversation about the importance of mental health and the challenges that athletes face every day. Sport often thrives on the idea of perfection — perfect plays, flawless routines, dominant seasons — and it can be difficult when any of that is taken away.

Mac Brown, who has experience with high school athletes and works as an assistant director and training coordinator of psychological health and performance for CU’s athletic department, has seen firsthand how that loss can affect a young athlete. It can lead to a grieving process that can present itself in mood swings, low motivation, disturbed sleep and overeating.

“The identity of an athlete can be quickly either removed completely or put on the back burner if there’s a season-ending or career-ending injury,” Brown said. “In a lot of ways, sport can help with a lot of emotional regulation for a lot of our young individuals, so all of the sudden not having that can be dysregulating.”

Each athlete featured in this article agreed to speak about his or her personal experience to shed light on a sensitive subject that affects many kids just like them. Mental health can often be seen as a taboo subject to discuss in any sport but can be just as vital to an athlete’s success as the physical side of performance. Each athlete has found ways to work through their anxieties to flourish.

Injury isn’t the only stressor that a competitor may face.

Niwot senior and defending Class 4A state champion Mia Curry lives — and thrives — in a world surrounded by the notion of perfection, with any small error costing points. That’s fine in competition, but she has found that the yearning for flawlessness can be problematic away from the gym.

“The perfectionism has actually played a lot into my high school life, into my personal life,” Curry said. “When I take tests, I always want to get that perfect 90 to 100. I always want to be perfect on my assignments. Sometimes, it’s hard for me to take criticism because I expect myself to be so perfect the first time and every time I do something.”

She feels that stress in practice, too, especially when she’s adapting to a new skill. In her years competing in the physically demanding sport, Curry has learned to work through the mental blocks that often come after a hard fall.

Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com
Niwot High School’s Mia Curry, center, sits at the participant table during Monday’s CHSAA/Denver Broncos Media Day at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium. (Photo by Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com)

“On events like beam and bars, since they do have that (thought of), ‘If you fall, you can get easily hurt,’ those ones are a lot scarier. That’s when your mind is telling you, ‘You’re going to get hurt.’ That’s when that stops you.”

It’s easy for her to psych herself out when attempting that skill again, but she pushes through the fear to perform her best for herself and her team anyway.

Centaurus High senior and Broomfield gymnast Brenna Calvo is working toward her third all-state selection and a state title on the bars. But like Curry, Calvo knows pain. She is competing through nagging hip dysplasia and, now, a bulging disc. Some days, she has to lean on her teammates and Advil to get her through a practice or a meet.

She tries to put the pain aside for the good of her team but often finds herself stressing over the details of her routines as she gets closer and closer to the end of her career. It doesn’t help that her sport focuses on individualized performances in front of large crowds.

Last season’s COVID-19 restrictions made it that much worse.

“It’s terrifying. It is really scary,” Calvo said. “I know that at state finals last year, you went one at a time, so you have everybody watching you. They announce your name, they announce your team and so literally everybody — parents, coaches, CHSAA people, your competitors — they are all watching you.”

Calvo has learned to cope with the pressure by distracting herself before a routine. That often involves doing TikTok dances or joking around with her teammates in other ways, while still excelling through her final weeks of high school gymnastics.

Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com
Broomfield gymnast Brenna Calvo readies for her uneven bars routine during a meet earlier this season in Broomfield. (Photo by Alissa Noe/BoCoPreps.com)

Golf, too, is a sport that circulates around the mental game. Even the most skilled athlete can ruin a good round on one bad shot. That, at least, is something that Centaurus junior Asa Wentworth is still trying to master.

Years into his golf career, Wentworth still has trouble keeping up with the mental strain of staying engaged with every shot. On an 18-hole course, that kind of focus can be exhausting. One misstep can not only disrupt his round; it can disrupt his mood, too, wherein he doesn’t want to talk to anyone.

He’s trying to learn from the best of the best to help him conquer that part of of his game. His efforts earned him a spot at this year’s Class 4A state tournament, where he tied for 23rd in a field of 84.

Photo by Jon Vaver/Provided by Asa Wentworth
Centaurus golfer Asa Wentworth tied for 23rd at the most recent Class 4A state tournament.

“I think right now, the mental part is probably the biggest part for me. I really feel like my skill’s there,” Wentworth said. “I have the skill to get it done, but I’ve been watching a lot of videos and reading about a lot of the pros that will go and play 36 holes a day.

“I let it get to me a lot — not so much the pressure of other people around me. In (Simone Biles’) case, it was like the whole country. That’s a little bit more pressure than just me putting my own pressure on myself.”

Through years of practice at CU and in his work with high school athletes prior, Brown has come across many athletes that face the same hurdles that Wentworth, Calvo, Curry and Clancy endure in their day-to-day lives. He emphasized that mental execution can be just as important as physical execution. If the mental side of the game becomes clouded, the physical side suffers as well.

“There’s a need for balance and recognizing and acknowledging a variety of different components to someone’s life. That can help reduce stressors so that it’s not always pinpointed on or about sport,” Brown said.

Through the help of teammates, Clancy is finding ways to reduce those stressors. He continues to stay engaged with his team by watching film with them and “coaching” from the sidelines. While he may have hit an unwanted pothole on the road to his college career, he’s embracing the competitor inside him to get back on the field for his senior season.

He’s always been a workhorse and now, that work is taking him back to full health through a quicker-than-normal recovery. Then he can dominate again.

“I just think, I could have been a senior with no offers, no anything. I could have been done playing football for the rest of my life,” Clancy said. “I still have this whole summer and next year to ball out and show everybody you can make it back from an injury. You don’t have to just close it down and be done. You just have to keep going.”