Learn to Love the Dark: An Open Letter to Young Athletes

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As a creative writing major and a person who is pursuing writing as a career, I often feel a pressure to express myself with perfect exactness and eloquence. When my coach first asked me to write a letter to the incoming class of freshman, I was worried about regurgitating the thoughts I expressed in my Senior Farewell (The Hawk Talk Daily: THE BEST OF: Repole Says Farewell ). However, as I thought more about what I wanted to tell the freshman and what advice I thought most pertinent, I realized that I wanted to talk about the intersection of sport and life. For they are both full of great duality, so cruel and so beautiful all at once. As an advocate for the transformative and redemptive power of sports, I also believe that this intersection taught me invaluable lessons about self-worth, kindness, faith and most importantly, resilience.

Last fall, I underwent the grueling process of applying to Masters of Fine Arts programs across the country and among other things, it made me see that sport and creative writing actually existed in the same universe: both disciplines demand diligence, practice and experimentation, all of which ultimately lead to a honing of craft and a progression in skill. What I didn’t realize up until that point is that pressure sneaks into the equation: I felt that there were expectations tied to my performance both on and off the field precisely because I was so prepared, so talented, so ready, so well-trained, so invested.

Who was I if I didn’t get into the Writer’s Workshop?

Who was I if my performance on the field included an error and two looking K’s?

You see, I rooted my identity in the two things that I had been taught to believe I should be classified by. I had to get into an MFA program, I had to play flawlessly or I was worthless. Society had trained me to measure my worth by my stats, by numbers, by “wins” and I bought into its twisted system. My opinion of myself was entirely tied up in measurable success. As a result, throughout my career as a student and an athlete, a negative fire of self-doubt and low self-worth smoldered in my heart and in my mind after any instance of failure. Before college, softball was never something that I was used to failing at. Success came fairly easy to me in high school and club ball. Likewise, writing was always something that I excelled at and I regarded it as a representation of value within myself.

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And then came college where the pitchers threw me three straight change-ups because they’d read the scouting report. And then came college where the game was in my hands and I dropped a fly ball. And then came stints on the bench and slumps and angry, frustrated tears. And then came five letters in the mail, all with the same terse sentences, “Dear Ms. Repole, we’d like thank you for your application. However, at this time we are unable to offer you admission into our MFA Fiction program. Best wishes.”

To be frank, some of my devastation came from my sense of entitlement. I felt like the game owed me. What were all of those hours in the cage for if I still didn’t get on base? Why did I do footwork drills for an hour in the freezing cold if I still got a late jump? In regards to my rejection from all five of the MFA programs, I felt the same anger, the same bitterness. From my very first fiction workshop class at Iowa, my professor told me that I would be an excellent candidate for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. My sophomore year, I applied and was accepted into the Undergraduate Creative Writing Track. The next year, I wrote a story that one professor told me was “publishable.” In short, I was planning on the Workshop. It was the dream I held closest to my heart for four years. It was the only ending I considered for my story. Had all of those professors lied to me? Had I been living in a state of delusion about my talent? What was I supposed to do now?

Here is the point: be open to failure. This a concept and a mindset that applies to every athlete and not just collegiate athletes. In all honesty, it technically applies to every single human in existence. Results and statistics are finite only in the paper sense. It is in your power to reinvent, to rewrite and to rise when the plan you had for yourself doesn’t work out, when life gets a little off-kilter. Within our nature lies a primal fear of “darkness” or the great unknown. Human instinct tells us to hesitate without light present and this is because it’s so hard to surrender to what we cannot know or see. I want to encourage you to approach the uncertain without fear. I want to encourage you to live fiercely in spite of ever-present “darkness.” Without it, we would remain static. Without it, we would never grow. As humans, we were not meant to live in such a state of inactivity. I want you to know that your power as an athlete and as a person, lies in your ability to adapt to new environments and challenges. Over the course of your life, I hope that you take enough risks and dream big enough dreams to know disappointment because in the wake of that disappointment you will discover strength within yourself that will surprise and delight you. You are so much more resilient than you can begin to imagine. You are infinitely more important than what the stats tell you. So don’t squander your seconds dwelling on failures. Learn from them, use them and attack the next challenge. You only get a certain number of pages. Make them worth reading.

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At this point in your life, it is hard to believe that your career will ever end. You’re lucky; playing sports still stretches onto seeming infinity for you. But someday will come sooner than you think. Someday, there will be no more opportunities to practice harder, to run faster, to lift a little bit more, to do things better and again. Someday, you’ll walk into the locker room and it will be your locker that’s decorated for Senior Day. When that day comes, I hope that you can say that you have done right by your dream to play collegiate sports. I hope you can say that you have done right by those who came before you and by those that played beside you. I hope you strived to exist in a constant state of gratitude for everyone who sacrificed their time, their talent and their passion to make you into a better athlete and a better person. I hope that you stopped for a moment to take a deep breath and rejoice in the gift of your health. I hope you encouraged the dreams of a child who wants nothing more than to be exactly like you. I hope you told your teammates that you loved them through your actions and not just your words. And most importantly, I hope you can say that you learned to love the “darkness” because it unearthed your hidden potential.

With love,

Whitney Repole