Tackling Insecurity Through Sport: Standing Tall on the Field and in Life
When I was 16 years old, my pediatrician recommended that I go see an endocrinologist to examine my “irregular” growing patterns. Unlike just about every other kid I knew, I had not experienced the big “spurt” yet.
As the years passed, I would be reassured time and time again that I would eventually grow. I remember being the 6th-shortest second grader in my class of 24 students, and falling further and further down that “ranking” (as I had always thought of it) as the years went on. I often complained, but every time I did, my parents would reassure me that I was just a “late bloomer.” It made sense genetically, considering my father had grown seven inches in a span of just six months during his sophomore year of high school.
My pediatrician was the first to acknowledge the signs that I had always willfully ignored: the visible facial hair, the acne that I so passionately despised, and the plain old lack of growth. The endocrinologist told me what I had dreaded hearing for so long: that at five feet and five-and-a-half inches tall, I was almost done growing. My growth plates had closed at atypically fast rates, and it was far too late to do anything about it.
For the most part, I am a very secure kid. I would be comfortable talking to anyone you put in front of me, I am very in touch with my emotions, and I think highly of myself. But from the times of my earliest memories to the present, my Achilles heel has always been the same on and off the field: height. As an athlete, I have always been a control freak about improving. I love to work out because I have learned through trial and error that doing so can change my strength and speed capabilities. I watch practice film of myself almost obsessively, because I get satisfaction from knowing that I can change my mistakes in the future. I have often tried to be a vocal leader on my various past athletic teams, because I know that doing so can change the dynamic of a team for the better.
“You’d be a hell of a player if you were about 5’10,” said my defensive coordinator during my freshman year of high school. Though he meant it in a complimentary way, I hated the way it sounded. Had he told me that I would be a “hell of a player” if I was stronger, I could have spent more time in the weight room. Had he told me that I would be a “hell of a player” if I had a better backpedal, I could have practiced harder. Had he told me that I would be a “hell of a player” if I wore different cleats to practice, I could have gone out and bought myself a new pair. But there was absolutely nothing I could have done to be 5 foot 10. I had no control.
When I realized that the fantasy of an eventual growth spurt was over, I was taught for the first time a cliche-but-very-important lesson: there is no sense in fretting over things that you can’t control, when there are so many things that you can control.
As a defensive back for the Loyola Academy (in Wilmette, Illinois) Ramblers high school football team in 2018 and 2019, I do not believe I ever lined up against an opponent who stood shorter than me. That sucked, and there was nothing I could do to change it. But there were so many things I could do to mitigate the significance of that disadvantage. I could use my leverage to help take down bigger guys. I could use my low center of gravity to outposition taller guys who jumped up in the air for the ball. And of course, I could get that much faster, or that much stronger, or that much smarter than the opponent. I had full control over all of those things.
Off the field, I still can’t change the fact that I’m a bit shorter than your average folk, and I actually don’t even think there’s anything I can do about the fact that I am insecure about my appearance as a result of my height. But just like in sport, I have come to realize that there are also things I can do in life to feel more confident in myself. I can wear colors that compliment the parts of my appearance that I love, like my hazel eyes. In the winter, I can wear Timberland boots, and in the summer, I can wear Air Maxes, both of which give me a couple inches and a world’s worth of extra self-esteem. And when the camera comes out for photos, I can sure as hell stand on my tippie toes to better align with my always tall friends. These are all things that I willingly joke about today, but in all seriousness, they make quite a difference in my head.
I would imagine that you have insecurities of your own that you carry with you everywhere you go. If I had to guess, I would say that everyone does. I have come to find that sport is a form of self-expression, a way to really show who we are. Reflect on your life as an athlete, and more specifically on all of the challenges you have overcome in sport. Likely, you will find that there are parallels between the struggles you have faced in your sports career and the struggles you have faced in your personal life. Try to use the example you have set for yourself in your athletic career as a way to overcome your perceived “weaknesses” in life outside of the game.
I can’t pretend like my story is one with a romantic Rudy-like ending. Of course, I wish that the insecurity that I feel about my height was something I could conquer entirely. But I have come to learn that just as you do in football, sometimes you need to get crafty to win the never-ending game of self-confidence.