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  • Michaela McCarthy

The Inner Competitor

By Michaela McCarthy

There was never a friendly game of cards in my house. There was never a game of horse where the score wasn’t kept. That’s just how my family was growing up - a constant competition. Of course, we had our laughs during these contests, but when it came down to the wire, there was always a winner and there was always a loser.

I’m the youngest of four. Two older brothers and one older sister. The age gap between my siblings and I was significant, but I never noticed it. When I was young, I bounced around from gym after gym to field after field to support my family. Everyone would always laugh at how I never failed to miss a game. As I matured, I began to watch them develop and compete in their respective sports. I never realized how insanely talented they were.

Michaela and her siblings

My brothers played golf and my sister played lacrosse in college, all of them competing at the Division I level. Whether I knew it at the time or not, when my sister committed to play lacrosse at James Madison University, the standard was set. There was no maybe, possibly, what if, or question; there was only one route: Division I.

Committing to Virginia Tech the fall of my sophomore year of high school was a dream come true. An ACC school with great academics, a team on the rise, and not too far from home. I couldn’t have asked for a better match.

This left me riding a high horse going into lacrosse season. I earned a starting spot on the defense, and we defeated a nationally ranked team. I felt like I was on top of the world until the pop. I knew it instantly. Everyone around me knew it too. I tore my ACL that April. I knew what this meant. Months on end of rehab. Setbacks at every other turn. Months until I would feel on top again. I always heard about this happening to hundreds of girls in the lacrosse world, but why me?

Eleven and a half months later, I was back on the field. It took a few tears and months of mentally grueling rehab and setback, but I was finally playing lacrosse again. After being cleared towards the end of my junior year, I knew senior year was when I would make my mark.

When senior year rolled around I was back on the starting defense. I was moving like I’d never moved before. I was playing the best lacrosse I had ever played. We beat our rivals, a consensus top ten team in the country, for the first time in seven years. I had never felt better about my game in my life. And because of that feeling, I had the hope and determination to earn playing time my freshman year at Tech.

No one ever talks about the mental game that college athletics is. Sure, there’s the heavy schedule, early mornings, and constant physical pain. But, the mental game is left out of those conversations.

Even when my siblings went through college athletics, they told me about the busy hours and constant demand on your body. Not once did they mention mental fatigue.

All summer leading up to my freshman year, I trained as hard as I ever had. Each weekday at 6 a.m., I would run and get some practice in with my local training group. What every incoming freshman headed to VT women’s lacrosse was talking about was the Manchester run test.

This was more than your average cardio test. It determined your fate. It determined mental toughness. It determined whether you were eligible to play. If you couldn’t pass the Manchester at level 20, you were not allowed to suit up in uniform and compete in games. It sounds simple enough: pass the test and you can wear the maroon and orange.

The Manchester Run Test

I attempted the Manchester at least 12 times that summer. I improved each time but never reached the elusive 20th level. I got anxious as we got closer and closer to school, but I kept telling myself that no matter what happens during the test, I would make sure my lacrosse game makes up for it.

The first day of lacrosse was inching forward and I felt this constant pounding in my chest. Pounding that’s so loud you can’t hear other people. Pounding that keeps you up hours at night. I had never felt this before. I always felt the occasional stress in high school for big exams or games, but this was different. The kind of stress that could never leave your mind - no matter how hard you tried to evict it. This was anxiety. I didn’t know it at the time, but anxiety would stick with me for the next two years.

The daunting day of the Manchester finally came. Everything at six in the morning happens so fast that I don’t remember it well at all. All I remember hearing was “Michaela, you’re out.”

I failed. I was a failure. I’d never felt this kind of failure. Of course, I’d lost games before, but this failure seemed to be entirely my fault.

I wasn’t mentally tough enough. I wasn’t fast enough. I wasn’t good enough.

And this showed in my play as well.

Everyone was fast, and everyone was good. I wasn’t one of the best anymore. In fact, I felt like I was the worst player on the team. Adjusting to college lacrosse, finding the pace of the game; I had to relearn a sport I thought I knew my entire life all over again. I felt like I was in a pitch black room, bumping into things that were familiar but also foreign at the same time.

After weeks where I was tasked with running 50 miles, waking up for 6 a.m. practices, and going through days where I felt like I did not belong here, it was time to rerun the Manchester. I told myself I had to pass it. That if I didn’t pass it, this would be the end all be all to my happiness. Tearing up as I hit the line with the time being called out, I had failed on the 20th level. And I would fail on the 20th level twice more. This test had outsmarted me. It was better than me. It defeated me. It was all I could think about while watching the team practice in the jerseys they had earned.

Coming from the Washington, D.C. area, everyone knew just about everyone in the lacrosse world. Many, I knew well. And at every fall-ball tournament and eventually into our regular season, I was asked the same question when I didn’t have my uniform on: “Are you injured?”

No, I was worse. I was a failure. Not passing the test made you ineligible to play in our coach’s eyes. It was as if Hester Prynne’s ‘Scarlet A’ was branded on me implying, “no don’t consider her a worthwhile player, she didn’t even pass the Manchester test.”

Although I had no idea the long-lasting impacts COVID-19 would ripple into our world for months, I couldn’t have had more joy in my heart when the season was cancelled.

This mental battle was finally over. That summer I pushed myself to new limits. I finally was getting over the mental hurdle that I was not good enough. I began to believe I was good enough to be there. I was good enough to be on an ACC team.

Returning in the fall to the Blacksburg mountains, I was a new player. I was quicker, I was smarter, I excelled in cardio, and I was finally confident. By the way things were going, I felt like I had a shot to be a backup on the defense.

Since COVID-19 flipped our entire world upside down, this also applied to the lacrosse world. There was no Manchester to be run in the fall because there were no fall tournaments. But come January 15th of the 2021 preseason, the Manchester would be back to taunt me.

Winter break I worked tirelessly to make sure the constant anxiety of the looming test wouldn’t beat me. My coach told me if I passed the test, I would get to travel to every away game. After running the Manchester twice in preseason,

I finally passed.

I couldn’t believe it. I was crying immediately, but this time, the tears expressed my happiness. Practically having an asthma attack, I begged for someone to let me borrow their phone. I had to call my mom. I had to tell her I finally did it. Something that had been held over my head for so long, something that made me feel so small was finally behind me.

Michaela and her mom

Because COVID-19 was constantly putting players in quarantine, the biggest game of the year had left us without multiple starters being able to compete. Our game versus UNC kept getting closer and closer with no game plan whatsoever. Our coach was alluding to putting bench players in the game since so many people were out. Even though he talked about how everyone would play and everyone would contribute, I somehow knew I would be overlooked. I went into his office a few days before the game and told him, “Hey, you have nothing to lose by putting me in. Don’t forget about me during the game.” About 15 minutes had gone by with me standing on the sidelines when I heard a quiet, “Michaela, go in.” He actually listened. The first time I would ever step on the field for a college lacrosse game. I wasn’t nervous about messing up, I was filled with such an immense and overwhelming amount of happiness that nothing could ruin this; and it showed. I played out of my mind. I had a caused turnover, 2 ground balls, and was stopping some of the best players in the country with my defense. I played this well against the number one team at the time. I thought things were finally going to change, but they didn’t.

Michaela, towards the left, with her team after their win against UVA

I couldn’t wait for the upcoming away game. My hard work finally paid off. Having played so well against the number one team in the country, I thought my coaches really saw potential in me to play and travel. After practice, the travel roster for Syracuse was announced. Name after name was called out but mine wasn’t. I kept waiting to see if my name was going to be eventually called but it never was. My heart sunk so far into my chest I didn’t know what I was feeling: disappointment, sadness, or confusion. Maybe a mix of all three. I sat at my townhouse in Blacksburg that weekend a little sad, but more so embarrassed. I couldn’t shake the feeling of embarrassment.

After the team rolled into Blacksburg from a ten hour bus ride, I was excited for the next week of practice. I thought if I played well enough, I for sure was going to be on the travel roster for our next game. Another game came, and with it, another time I didn't hear my name on the travel roster.

After the team traveled to Duke, I was determined to be on the last travel roster of the season to Notre Dame. Practice after practice that week, I went for every loose ball, every check, every opportunity I could to make the travel roster. I played so well that there shouldn’t even be a question of whether I was traveling or not.

I heard my phone ding and checked to see a notification from our coach: the travel roster. I must’ve read the list up and down five times carefully scanning for my name. It felt like no matter how hard I tried or how hard I worked, nothing would change. I stopped trying as hard, I stopped caring. I was so mentally defeated and had been beaten down so many times that I was ready for the season to be over. Then, something happened.

In the middle of summer 2021, the news our team had been anxiously waiting for had arrived: we got a new coach. The excitement, the nerves, the unexpected. It was a change. Something this program desperately needed. I remember our head athletic director Whit Babcock discussing our new coach, Kristen Skiera, and he said something I’ll never forget. “For those of you that haven’t played, this is your time to prove and reinvent yourself.”

This was finally my chance.

Driving down to Blacksburg that August felt different. No more anxious nights about the Manchester test. No more fear of going to practice. I finally found the love for the sport I’d lost. Coming back to a COVID-19 free Blacksburg was a dream come true. This was going to be my year.

The first day of lacrosse practice with new coaches was like stepping out into an abyss: you had no idea what to expect, but you just had to take the chance and see. This was my shot. I told myself not to be nervous because what was there to be nervous about? These coaches didn’t know how I played or what I had to offer; it was my chance to show out.

However, I came out flat. And that’s the nice way of putting it. Not good, not bad, but not noticeable. I was scared to tell my mom. I told her everything was great with the new coaches. But I was scared to tell her I wasn’t playing well. I could not find the confidence I’d lost two years ago when I started playing collegiate lacrosse.

Michaela and family celebrates her brother's golf championship

My family was so competitive and there was such a high standard to meet, but I felt like I kept falling short. It was embarrassing to not be as successful as my older siblings.

My parents were traveling to PGA golf tournaments to watch my brother strive, while I was barely a good enough practice player.

I couldn’t admit that I cracked under pressure and made a terrible first impression.

The fall happened so quickly I didn’t know what to make of it. Lineups were being created before my eyes, reps were limited, time was running out for me to make my debut. Winter break was right around the corner which meant one thing, preseason. Making your mark in preseason would help determine your fate in the spring lineup. I met with my head coach and she gave me areas of my game to improve upon if I wanted to see the field. When we were done talking, I said “you can count on me.”

Since I told coach Skiera she could count on me, I transformed my words into action. All winter break I trained, I had my friends who also competed in Division I lacrosse take reps on me. I worked on my footwork, I worked on it all. I tirelessly worked on all areas of my game to make sure they were as close to perfect as possible.

I was a bundle of anxiety as we approached preseason. If there was a second chance, this was it. I had to show my coaches I’m coachable - that I can do the things they’re asking of me, and prove that I can be a reliable player.

I was playing lights out. I was even shocked at how well I was playing. I kept thinking “Where did this come from,” but I knew where it came from: determination and hard work. I was determined to move up our depth chart. Practices went by where I consistently stood out. Practices where teammates came up to me afterwards telling me how I crushed it. I was feeling good. But preseason is only a few weeks. And lineups will not change overnight, especially at this level.

At least in team sports, waiting to hear your name called is one of the biggest mental challenges.

What order are they listing the girls? Are they listing who they think is best or worst? Am I in the starting group or the backup group? Am I with the players I think I should be with? Am I even called at all?

I kept waiting to hear my name. After how much I’d improved over winter break and throughout preseason, hearing my name tells me right where I may stand in the lineup. In drills, the starters would be announced. Then there were the backups, who played against the starters. I heard four names on the backup defense and then “Michaela, you’ll sub in for that group.”

How could I inch my way in there? I feel like I’ve been playing well, what am I not doing right? If this had happened last year, I would’ve given up. I would’ve asserted to myself that the lineups were set. What was the point in putting in extra work if nothing would change? I was determined to prove everyone wrong.

Early in the 2022 season, things were going well. I was traveling for every game and was excited to see how the year would turn out. I was on the phone with my mom one night when the travel roster for our game against Pittsburgh came out.

I saw my name stick out like a sore thumb on the “not traveling” roster. My heart sank. I thought I was doing everything right. I thought I was on the come up. I was a junior and I wasn’t traveling? I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe it. I was watching the game on tv from my couch in Blacksburg. One of my friends texted me about the game and I purposely didn’t respond until the game had ended, so no one knew I wasn’t traveling. That embarrassing feeling resurfaced that moment and I never wanted to feel it again.

Last year, I wouldn’t have done anything that weekend: no extra practice, no extra cardio, only allowing myself to wallow in my sorrows. I let myself be sad the day the travel roster was released and that’s it.

This was where I needed to mentally push through the disappointment and let this situation be my motivation. “Make sure you’re so fired up that the next time the travel roster comes around, the coaches have no option but to put me on it,” I told myself. Over the course of the following week I felt something I’d never felt before, mental growth.

I worked with our defensive coach constantly. I was always in the film room. I was playing extra reps with our offensive players outside of practice. I ran constantly outside of practice to improve my endurance. My thoughts were consumed by lacrosse and how I could improve. Of course, I come from a competitive family. More so than ever this season, the competitive drive that had been instilled within me from my family was taking over.

Over the course of the 2022 season I’ve learned a few things that have stuck with me and one of them is the concept behind team sports. Here I am, best friends with 41 girls. All of us are so close, always laughing and having a good time. But these best friends you have are competing for the same spot as you. There’s a tension of knowing your best friend is your direct competition, but never addressing it. And at the end of the day, only 12-14 of us get to step on the field and represent Virginia Tech.

And no matter how hard you worked, how badly you wanted that spot, or how sad it makes you that you don’t get to step on the field, you can’t show it.

Whatever negative feelings you have, you’ll need to suppress them and cheer for your friends out on the field. It’s not that you’re not happy for your friends that play, it’s that you yearn to be out there with them. We all want that as Division I athletes, it’s what makes us so crazy competitive.

Halfway through the season, I finally saw results. The hard work I put in when no one was watching showed up in practice. My name popped up on all the travel rosters. Slowly but surely, I was moving up the lineup. Of course there are days where I don’t play as much as I want, but this is college lacrosse. The lineup constantly rotates and that’s where the toughest battles happen. When things aren’t going our way as athletes, do we stay complacent or use it to motivate us?

The advice I leave with other athletes is this: keep working.

The moment where we didn’t get in when we thought we would, didn’t travel to a game when you thought you deserved it is when the hardest work is done. You have the right to be upset, that’s normal, but let this feeling fuel your fire to get better.

In the past, I thought there was no point in putting in the extra work if the lineup won’t budge. But these mental battles with ourselves to stay complacent or let these feelings fuel us is what makes us a better player. Speaking from experience, the work does pay off.

It’s not obvious at first, it’s subtle. Thinking back to how I played freshman year versus now, I’m not the same player. That’s what motivates me. These are two separate players that were created from my mental growth. I want to thank my parents for supporting me throughout my lacrosse career because they believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. I also want to thank Ryan, Denny, and Cristina for being the siblings that always push me to keep competing and be the best version of myself.

Edited by Ryan Duvall

Photos provided by Michaela

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