Things I Wish I Knew When I Was An Elite-Level Athlete
My name is Sarah McGall, and I'm a retired NCAA Division I athlete.
It's been a few years since I played my last NCAA game, and I've learned a lot since then. My passion now is to give athletes the things that I didn't have when I was their age so that they can have long, healthy athletic careers. My blogs are designed for athletes and the parents of athletes to get an inside view of what happens throughout the process of playing specialized, high-level sports, the problems that happen along the way, and what we can do about them together.
A lot has happened since I last stood between the pipes at Lindenwood University: for one, I no longer live in Missouri. I started my career as an Athletic Therapist, won a few major competitions with the teams that I worked for, started and finished grad school and became a Physiotherapy Resident at CONNECT in the midst of a global pandemic, just to name a few things.
In the last few years, I've had lots of time to reflect, find new hobbies outside of hockey, and learn new things now that so much of my life is no longer consumed by the sport that I love. Now that I can reflect on my athletic career, I want to tell you some of the things I wish that I knew when I was in your shoes in hopes that you can learn from me and, when your career is over one day years from now, you can have new things that you wish you knew that you can share with the next generation.
Listen To Your Body
I started to specialize in hockey in my early-to-mid-teens, and it was around that time that I really committed to the idea that the harder I worked on and off the ice, the better I'd get (or so I thought).
I expected the workouts and on-ice sessions to be hard, I expected to be sore, and I expected pain. I went into every session with the mentality that I would need to be peeled off the floor or ice afterwards. You get in, put on your armour, never take a break, and never, ever show weakness. What I didn't realize at the time- and something I see a lot of young athletes struggle with today- is understanding that we're humans, not machines, and knowing when to push and when to pull back is an incredibly hard skill to master.
I know, I know, you're thinking "but hard work pays off right? #HWPO is REAL!," but take it from me, I had a strict program training Monday to Saturday, grinding it out every day and feeling guilty for resting on Sundays. There were a lot of times where I would be struggling physically and mentally by mid-week. Would I ever dare admit that? Absolutely not, not at that point in my life anyway, because I was an athlete, and athletes never back down from a challenge.
Here's the thing about hard work: it does pay off, but part of working hard is recovering hard, and that in and of itself is a tough pill to swallow for stubborn, Type-A athletes. Maybe I was just too stubborn to hear the conversations about rest and recovery that came from my coaches and trainers, but honestly, I think if I had have paid more attention to what my body was telling me instead of drowning it out with more work I would have saved myself a few trips to the injured list.
The lesson? Take more days "off" to focus on mobility and recovery. Work hard, but play hard and rest hard too. Better yet, find someone who will put active recovery in your program and hold you to it. Active recovery days might not be the fast pace, heart racing, sweat dripping, peel-you-off-the-floor workout that you're used to, but this change of pace might be the difference between walking into playoffs and sprinting your way to a season-ending injury.
Remind Yourself Why You're Playing Your Sport
Regardless of what level you're playing at, the vast majority of athletes experience outside pressure to perform. Whether it comes from their coach, team staff, family, or their friends, many athletes find themselves under pressure to win and get left with a fear of failure, and that shapes their perspective on their sport. The higher you climb in the ladder of sport, the greater that external pressure to perform becomes. Contracts, sponsorships, scholarships - all amazing signs of your progress as an athlete, but each one further emphasizes the importance of winning and performing on a team and individual level.
It was my second year of college when I bent under the pressure and had to ask myself why I was putting myself through so much mentally and physically in order to play hockey, and it was a hard realization when the answer at the time wasn't because I loved the game.
I can vividly recall being exhausted from offseason training and, when I didn't perform to the level that I wanted to on team retest day, I had a mental breakdown. I remember my strength coach seeing that I was struggling, pulling me aside, and sitting me down to talk about how I was feeling. After that conversation, she set me up with an amazing sports psychologist. My first thought was "How could she think that there's something wrong with me?," and the stigma around mental health had me really hesitant to admit I needed help, but once I did I quickly realized I had made a decision that would save my career.
With the help of that sports psychologist, I rediscovered everything I love about hockey. I learned to play the sport that I love for myself. I love hockey because my life on the ice is simple. I love the sound the puck makes when it hits my stick. I love the weight of it in my glove. I love the way my skate digs into the ice, and knowing that I'm making a difference for my team - and working hard gives me more opportunities to do all of these things that I love. I'm no longer playing to please my coach or my parents. I'm not working hard because I'm afraid of falling behind or failing, I'm playing for passion, and it might seem like a small mindset shift, but for me, it made all the difference in the world.
Long before the NCAA commitments, scholarships, elite team selections, or glimmers of bright lights, it's important for every athlete to know why they're playing that sport. Find your "why," find your love of the game, and use it as your North Star when things get tough. Being a young adult is hard enough without the pressures that elite-level sport adds, but staying in touch with why you became an athlete in the first place will get you through almost anything sport can throw at you. For me, it took a breakdown, some hard conversations, and an amazing sports psychologist to rediscover my why, but if you never lose it, you'll never have to find it again.
Train For Your Sport With Someone Who Knows It
Growing up, the options for sport-specific offseason training were limited. I had two options: on my own at the YMCA, or on my own in the great outdoors. Around the age of sixteen, I finally got linked up with a gym that trained a lot of hockey players, so I started training there full-time through the summers.
I learned the basics: squats, deadlifts, push-ups, planks, farmer's carries, and, by the time I was eighteen and headed off to college, I was pretty strong. As a freshman, I ranked amongst the strongest performers in the gym, and I could move more weight than most of the veterans at that point. The thing was, all that strength didn't stop me from sustaining a season-ending knee injury very early on.
It's hard to look back and say that training differently could have helped me avoid that injury because frankly, $hit happens, but as I've started my career as a physiotherapist that loves working with athletes, I'm not so sure that that particular $hit was destined to happen.
Now I focus on helping athletes learn the things I didn't at their age, things that are critical skills within their sport, like single-leg movements, transferring weight quickly and effectively, rotational core strength, changing direction, and prioritizing maintaining and increasing mobility throughout a season. Would adding these in at a young age prevented me from ever getting injured? Unlikely, but I would have probably been more physically prepared, and much less likely to suffer a big season-ending injury.
I never worked with a coach that took the perspective of training for improved performance based on the demands of the sport AND on injury prevention. My coaches did an amazing job teaching me the foundations but never translated strength into performance. I believe we can do better for our young athletes now.
Enjoy The Process, But Turn It Off Once In A While
At some point in my athletic career, I realized that my entire life was consumed by my sport, as I'm sure many other athletes have. Train. Fuel. Sleep. Repeat. Right? Not to mention the never-ending pile of homework, assignments, and studying. It's hard to be social when you need to be in bed by 9 pm to get up for training at 5 am, and most parties don't start until midnight. My college roommates wouldn't need many fingers to count the number of times I went out and had a good time with them on a social night, because I was one of those athletes stuck in the mindset that if I took my eyes off the prize for even a moment, I'd watch success slip through my fingers. I was so serious, so focused, that I felt like any stray potato chip, late-night, or slice of pizza would cause my performance to immediately drop, and I'd never be happy unless I could be the very best.
I've learned that happiness doesn't lie at the destination, happiness comes along the journey. You can't be so serious, and work so hard, and sustain yourself by thinking you'll be happy when you become a starter, or win a game, or win a championship. You might get there, but it's not going to make you happier.
Work hard, focus, and bring the intensity when you're training. Turn it on, and get it done, but don't forget to turn it off again. Step away from training and enjoy nights with your team, because that hockey family is as good as the game itself. Loosen up, laugh, and embrace other things you love, whether it's time with your family, getting lost in a book, playing music, or knitting little stuffed hockey pucks. You'll be grateful for the break, and you'll train harder because of it.
There is no one perfect path to getting to the show, every athlete has a different story. There's no one-size-fits-all training or nutrition or sleep or supplement program. We don't all love the game for the same reasons, but we all love the game for some reason. Now that I'm out of the game and I'm looking back at my career, these are a few of the things I wish I knew, and I hope you learn them so that when your career ends one day you learn new things that you wish you knew that you can pass on to the next generation of athletes.
Listen to your body, stay in touch with the reason why you play, learn when to work hard and when to let loose, and work with someone who will grow your training with your abilities and with the demands of your sport in mind. When it's all said and done, and you hang up your skates you'll be left with the memories of the people you met, the lessons you learned, and the times you had along the way.
I would never give up my experience as an athlete, the successes I've had, and the heights I've reached because there's nothing quite like pulling on the jersey and leaving the real world behind to go into battle with your team. That's what makes us athletes. So, young athlete, go and learn from the things I wish I knew, make your own mistakes, but always remember to enjoy the amazing ride you're on.
Sarah McGall is a physiotherapy resident, self-proclaimed NARP (non-athletic regular person), retired hockey goalie, and passionate learner. She has a passion for helping athletes reach their greatest goals, whether it's returning after an injury or taking their game to the next level. Find Sarah on Instagram at @smcgall_pt or find Sarah at CONNECT here.