Beyond proud, but I wish I’d been kinder to myself
After two Olympic Games for the Opals and 15 years in the WNBL, Katie Ebzery has decided it’s time to retire. Ebzery reveals the anxiety and self-doubt that has been with her every step of the way, in a bid to help others who are tackling similar issues.
While I have decided to end my basketball journey, I wanted to share with you a little of my story – an unguarded version to provide some context to my career and ultimately some of the reasons that have contributed to this decision.
I do this with the aim to help just one other person, in the hope that by sharing my story they can see that life can be lived, even with challenges, and that getting help to change some habits can make a huge difference.
I often get upset writing or reflecting on my career and basketball memories. I have had to discuss them a lot over the years and often give short, stock-standard answers showered in positivity and #gratefulness because, one; they are answers that are easy to give, and two, the truth in the struggle and challenges was, for a long time, not what people wanted to hear about an elite athlete’s life.
I worried that if I said what I actually experienced or thought, that I would be brought to tears, or, worse, let people down and so, I would often avoid it. It is still hard to talk about.
While reflecting a lot over the past 18 months, and working through some of my personal struggles and habits, it is clear that these memories are deeply clouded in, and viewed through the prism of severe anxiety that really crippled me throughout my childhood and professional basketball career.
They are hard to reflect on because the feelings, and therefore the memories, were so often negative for me. I now know it wasn’t always the actual moments or experiences a lot of the time – it was how my mind was reacting to or reacting in those moments, that created certain feelings for me.
I always knew that the part of my personality that largely contributed to my success as an athlete was an innate desire to succeed or do my best in all aspects of my life. Those who know me, know that if I am going to spend time doing something that I like to do it well.
Originally, and from a very young age, this is what always drove or guided me in the direction of success. But, coupled with anxiety, this drive often resulted in a toxic mix of worry in the lead up to events and despair or self-loathing when any of even the smallest goals weren’t met.
My anxiety manifested through constant worrying. Ruminating in things that had happened. A flippant, negative comment from my coach or teammate would end up in hours of me stewing over and analysing what had happened.
Thinking things like – ‘If I hadn’t done A or B then they wouldn’t have said that. Do they hate me? They must be talking about me. I’m an awful person. I am clearly so bad at basketball. I don’t know why I even bother. Your teammates don’t even like you. It’s going to be so awkward when you see them next.’
I would also then worry about that comment’s future impact, completely exaggerating what had actually happened and what it meant, as well as what would happen as a result. Multiply this by all the direct and indirect feedback and comments that are made in the sporting arena, and to say that I was overthinking it is an understatement. I would do this in everyday life as well.
This alone is quite exhausting.
Anxiety made its way into my tendency toward perfectionism, through excessive self-criticism for any task that I hadn’t done properly. The way I would talk to myself, and still do in some instances, has been one of the hardest habits to break.
I am sure we all do this to some extent, but for me this is a constant, daily occurrence, particularly with and during basketball, that was deeply ingrained in my thought processes from a very early age; an unhealthy habit that has damaging consequences to self-acceptance, confidence and identity. I wish I was kinder to myself.
While this ‘drive’ and ‘perfectionism’ pushed me to become a better athlete, it did so through this lens of constant anxiety.
As you can see from some of the examples I provided, it would create some very negative feelings and ultimately contribute to an overarching and all-encompassing theme of worry.
If I wasn’t thinking about a comment then I was worrying about failing, not doing well, not doing the same training as everyone else, not eating the right things, not training enough or well enough, being late, not playing well enough. Never quite being good enough. These thoughts, and that negative inner critic, are what drove me.
I thought that wanting to be elite at something meant that any other person trying to achieve the same thing, would most likely have these thoughts too – this is what drives you to succeed. I thought it was normal.
And while there is a normal aspect to it – that intense desire to do well and do things well – the thoughts and internal dialogue that drove it were definitely not normal. It became not only detrimental to my confidence and self-worth but plagued me for almost the entirety of my basketball career.
I would have a good game and everything was ok, but as soon as I did something wrong, made an error, had a bad game – the thoughts would come rushing in and they were all consuming. I yo-yoed between the highs and lows, constantly chasing the positives to get some reassurance that I was not only good at basketball but a good person.
I persisted with these habits for so long for two main reasons. In some way I believed these were the thoughts I needed to have in order to be the best. I was tough and hardworking, and this is what needs to happen. And because no one ever knew what I was doing to myself – it was very internal – and I never knew any differently.
Often, my parents just thought I was really nervous or too hard on myself, a silly kid, sad and crying because she missed some shots in a basketball game.
In reality, I was an anxious wreck with the pressure of expectation and no words or communication skills to say or express how I was feeling.
I would suppress it and hide it as best I could so as not to disappoint or let anyone down. Often it would get too much and during a game or before a running race I would cry. The tears fell as my anxiety got too much and I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling or have anyone I felt that I could say it to.
‘I get sad about the times I was told to smile more’
My Dad, an old school, very few words kind of man, who drove me all over Australia and attended almost every sporting event by my side, was my biggest supporter. From basketball in Kempsey to netball in Bathurst to cross country in Eastern Creek, athletics in Melbourne and touch football in Wollongong.
He had grown up in the small country town of Kyogle in Northern NSW with a stoic father himself and a mother who had experienced some hard challenges from a young age. Dad, and this is most definitely not his fault, did not by any means have the vernacular to help me through my anxious worries and concerns.
But where else are you meant to learn these things or the vocabulary around the feelings, if not from your parents?
I get sad about all the times when I would be told to smile more or asked if I even enjoyed what I was doing. This happened until very recently.
Obviously deep down, somewhere, I did enjoy and love basketball and sport. It was fun when I was younger and I played for fun. When my self-worth and identity weren’t tied up in my sporting results or success.
As I got older, the identity and pressure of being the best all the time really exacerbated my anxiety. But the negative dialogue also drove me. The two were so intertwined that it was hard to see or know what came first or what dictated the other.
It was confusing and I never talked about how I was feeling, so my struggles often remained hidden. I was my own worst enemy and harshest critic. Anything that was ever said about me by anyone else, I had often said in my own head times 1,000 on any given day and would often sit and ruminate in those thoughts.
For a lot of my life, I always thought that I just took life and my sport too seriously or that I was incapable of enjoying the sport that I had chosen to spend so much of my life dedicated to perfecting. While I definitely have my moments – a tendency to ‘over think’ coupled with an inability to communicate feelings and emotions very well or feel safe enough to do so – resulted in some poor mental health habits that I hadn’t worked on changing until now.
These poor underlying habits were of course just spotlighted and exaggerated in my sporting experiences as pressure increased and there was a lot at stake. No wonder I didn’t particularly enjoy some of my past experiences. My head wasn’t a pleasant place to be in those moments and the thoughts wouldn’t let me sleep and would last for days.
Like any habit, they can be changed. It may take time but I am already seeing the benefits of working through them and trying to change the way I think and remove that inner critic and be kinder to myself. Mistakes are a part of being human and everyone can make them – no one can be perfect and to try and hold yourself to that standard, always, is a very hard place to live.
‘Saying you’re not ok, is ok’
I have had an amazing career.
From a scrawny, lanky kid in Newcastle who constantly doubted herself and thought she wasn’t good enough to a woman who got to play all over Australia and around the world.
I have had some amazing coaches and teammates. Some who still regularly keep in contact with me and always check in to say they are following my success – those are the people I am grateful to have met along the way.
I love going back to the stadium in Newcastle and seeing the people who were there at the beginning – my family and friends – and seeing how much my success means to them too. They have always had a big impact on me.
To have had the honour of representing my country at any level, junior or senior, in any competition, was always the pinnacle for me. Something that I dreamed of as a little girl shooting hoops in the backyard and something that I never took for granted and always gave my best.
That’s all I ever tried to do whenever I hit the floor. I hope this is something I’ll be remembered for.
I am so proud of everything that I achieved in my 15-year, 300 + game career. I have had some moments that I will cherish forever.
While it wasn’t easy, I hope that when my raw feelings can harden, that I’ll be able to help other people experiencing some of the things I went through. I hope that by sharing this it can make someone feel less alone in what they are experiencing.
Or to understand some of the terminology that might be escaping them as they struggle. Or to understand that saying – ‘you’re not ok’ – is ‘ok’. And that asking for help is a really difficult thing to do and can take many years to actually go through with. But it is very much worth it when you do.
I hope it might influence a coach to take a little more time to learn about, and actually understand, the people who are in their care. Who are they? How are they? What makes them tick? What are their dreams and passions?
I hope that it might help a parent to understand their quiet or introverted child who might seem like they take life a little too seriously, or who seem like they might have the weight of the world on their shoulders. That you might understand some ways you could help to take some of that load and teach them strategies to cope or understand why they think the way they do.
I am very much looking forward to the next chapter of my life. I have learnt a lot about myself in the latter part of my career and while I wish I could have known some of these things a little earlier, I am able to move into the next chapter of my life with a fresh start and an understanding and perspective I wouldn’t have gotten without going through what I did.
I am beyond proud and look forward to celebrating with those that played a part in the near future.