Mat Talk

Updated: Mar 4

On a recent episode of Netflix's CHEER in what I saw as an attempt to motivate, a girl "off mat" voices that "it’s hard to watch you guys (on mat) cry and complain when that’s where we (off mat) all want to be. We would give anything to be out there."

I feel you, girlfriend.

This athlete was trying to motivate her teammates on mat- attempting to give them perspective to more clearly see the opportunity that they have- an opportunity that she wanted so badly.

I could see her intention, but her comment was taken as an attempt to "tear down” her teammates.

The head coach instructs the athletes who are not on mat to "mat talk" (scream and cheer for) those on mat and to accept their role. She tells them that although she realizes it's frustrating to not be out there, they need to trust that she is putting the athletes who have the best chance at helping the team win, on mat. The coach tells the athletes off mat to be more positive for their teammates who are out there working so hard to get through the difficult routine and there was reference to the mental hardship that comes with being on mat.

Well, there's another mental hardship to consider in sports- one that I argue may be even harder to weather than the pressure of being on mat . . . not being on mat. Personally, I have had the unique perspective of being both. I've been the girl "on mat"- the captain, the 4-year varsity starter, the back-to-back state champion.

I’ve also been the girl on the sideline. And the sideline fucking sucks (Sorry, mom. Nothing else quite conveys it). Are you happy for your teammates' triumphs? Of course. They're some of your closest friends! Do you want to be on a winning team? Absolutely. But the problem is, you don’t feel a part of the wins. You’re not out there.

You’re working so hard every day just like those on mat, and you just want the chance to contribute and to really feel like part of the team, but you’re not given the opportunity unless someone on mat gets hurt or makes a mistake. And when that happens and the pressure to go out there and perform is suddenly (oh so suddenly!) on you- you’re a shell of your formerly- confident self, doubting your own abilities as you take the mat with all the mental noise, knowing very well that you have one chance to nail it (even if you haven’t had the reps that those on mat get every day).

Now, I'm sure you're thinking, "Well then you should have just beat your teammates out and earned a spot out there! You didn't do that so just accept your role on the sidelines."

Earned it when? In practice? In my own experience (the only experience I can speak from), once the coach’s mindset is locked in, you’re on mat or you’re not, no matter how much you bring it in practice (if given the opportunity).

You believe in your heart that you deserve to be on mat, but you remain on the sidelines. You out-work someone who's out there in your position and you know that you have the skill, but the opportunity is being given to someone else instead of you. It’s a mindfuck like nothing else I have yet to experience. It’s so physically and mentally challenging to be on mat . . . but also to be on the sidelines.

When I was a starter, you weren’t taking my spot. You weren't. I had all of the confidence one could embody because my coach believed in me- I was the starter! But, I got a whole other perspective when I wasn’t.

When you're not on mat, you don’t feel like your effort matters. You don’t really feel a part of the wins or the losses. You’re not in, you’re out. That’s your role. You start to question why you chose this program when other schools wanted you and next, you start to question your talent and your worth.

But wanting to be on mat is such an awkward line to tip toe- you don’t want your (closest) friends to fail but you also know that’s the only way you’re gonna go in, and you want to go in but you know that the moment that you make a mistake, you’re out. How's that for some confidence? "We'll give you a chance but don't fuck up or you're out." It's like "wait, do I want to be on mat?" It's a draining dichotomy that strips you to your rawest, most vulnerable form.

You work your whole life to be on mat and then end up leaving your program having never contributed or felt a part of it.

On a recent episode of my Squats and Margaritas podcast, I had the opportunity to interview former D1 athlete and mental health advocate, Victoria Garrick.

Victoria played.

All four years.

She still said this:

"If I wasn’t playing, it would have been a huge difference. Of course, everyone likes to say, 'Oh I would have been a (good) team sport but if I wasn’t getting playing time and I didn’t get to be a part of the wins, I wouldn't have made it four years. I didn't think I would make it four years and I was playing!"

Victoria describes being "riddled with performance anxiety- I was afraid to go on the court, crying before games- as much as you want to play, (you) don’t wanna make mistakes. I'd feel like I’m not good enough. I hated what happened to me in my head when I was out there (on the court), it’s this weird rope you walk. It’s just so much worry and fear and panic that you just eventually shift to like a numb state where you just don’t feel."

Out there on mat, performing under pressure? Draining. Not being out there? Also, draining.

When your sport is your life and you're watching it from the sidelines, your frustration is mounting by the hour, but you don't dare confide in anyone about it because your friends are your teammates on mat and you don't want to look like you're not a team player, so you leave it all bottled up inside. You put on your cheerfulli-est cheerleader face on the daily. It’s a mental battle- one that I lost- one that took me out of my sport and from the only value I had ever identified myself with.

What happened, you ask? Ok, you didn't. But I'll tell you.

"I'm done. It's not fair. It doesn't matter how I perform, I'm just not getting to play."

I quit (on a whim!). Cue the violins and the ten year downward spiral riddled with depression and bulimia.

(sidenote: Do I regret it? I can't. As much as I missed my sport, I would never have found my life's purpose had I not gone through the decade of hardship that followed my walking away from it.)

So, what's the right way to handle it when you're not on mat but feel like you deserve to be? Do you quit? Do you"hang in there"and keep hope alive until it's just over (after giving four years of time and effort into something that you never felt a part of)?

I'm not even going to pretend to have that answer.

Should we all be rooting for the team we're apart of? Uh huh. But can we also just take into account the mental aspect for those not on mat?

I'm not saying that the people that earned a spot on mat don't deserve to be out there. What I am saying is that all of the mental anguish, performance anxiety and stress that comes with sport doesn't just fall on those on mat.