From Sports Skills to Life Skills: How Athletics Prepare For the Future

Jeff Lee-Heidenreich, born and raised in Palo Alto, California, was always immersed in sports. He grew up playing many sports, but basketball was mostly the focus. After realizing that basketball was not the right fit for him, doors opened for Lee-Heidenreich in track and field after earning his spot as one of the top high jumpers in California in high school. Lee-Heidenreich competed in track and field at Princeton University for four years and now attends the University of Michigan Law School. He sat down with Sack the Stigma to discuss his experiences as a college student with and without athletic involvement. 

Brooke Woodrum, Sack the Stigma: What was your experience like competing in track and field at Princeton?

Jeff Lee-Heidenreich: It was a lot of fun, though it was very stressful. I really enjoyed my teammates, I would consider them my friends for life. One thing about being an athlete in college is that you have an automatic friend group that’s built in, but the hard part is you can’t cut people out because they’re on your team. College sports are great at teaching you how to navigate relationships, especially in the professional world, because you can’t ignore your coworkers either. It was also stressful because of the academic intensity.


I went to one of the most academically rigorous high schools in California, so I was sort of used to it, so most of my stress in college was from track and meeting my coach’s expectations. Track is different because in basketball, for example, if I was feeling great, like I was tired or my legs weren’t feeling great, I knew I could make an impact on the game just by making smart passes or trying really hard on defense. Even if my shot was off, I could still have a really good game. In track, if your legs don’t feel good, you’re just going to get a bad mark and nobody’s going to help you. They don’t care how hard you tried, it’s all about the number. How fast did you run? How high did you jump? This was stressful because in basketball and other sports, I always felt like I could fall back on my effort, but in track you are totally accountable for your performances, and you’re not going to have good performances every week. The amount of stress I put myself under to meet my coach’s expectations wasn’t healthy. In the end, I think it was all good because sometimes a little stress is good for you, but not that much. 

STS: How did your mental health and wellbeing impact your performance in track and field?

Lee-Heidenreich: I noticed that if I had a bad meet, I always wished I could go back to one jump where I felt like I had it in my hands and messed up. I would always have a little regret after a bad meet, so in the next meet, when another opportunity comes up, I would think, “This is a moment I may be regretting in the future, this is my chance, I don’t want to be thinking about how I messed up one jump in twenty minutes.” This always helped me focus a little more and assess the situation better. Everyone has their own little things they do. This applies to a lot of sports to where there are always going to be moments where you need to come through for yourself. 

STS: How was your experience managing the stress of academics and athletics at the same time?

Lee-Heidenreich: It’s definitely hard to balance but in high school I was also balancing things with track, basketball, and school. It wasn’t necessarily new to me, especially in my freshman year I was thinking of majoring in finance or math or something, but those classes had so much work that it was impossible with track. Every day I had maybe thirty minutes a day to go on my phone and check what was going on before I had to go to bed. This pushed me to major in history because it was a bit less work and I still really liked it. Being an athlete definitely played a role in what major I did, but I was fortunate enough to still have a plan of what I wanted to do so I didn’t have to give up on a dream. 

STS: How was the transition from being an athlete in undergrad to no longer playing in grad school?

Lee-Heidenreich: It’s pretty interesting, without track, I definitely have more time. I don’t do crazy workouts anymore, I go to the gym for maybe an hour a day five times a week, but that’s easy. In college, when you combine walking down to the track, being in the locker room, warming up, working out, and then showering, it would come down to three hours a day. It’s so nice that I can just bang out a workout and get it done. Sometimes it can feel hard to make time to workout because you feel like you have to go study, but being an athlete before has helped me manage my time. The people you interact with are also different, people don’t talk about sports so much in law school, so it’s definitely different than being with my teammates. I don’t feel like I’m in an entirely new world, it’s just a different group of people. I definitely miss the competitive part of collegiate athletics, so I like to do intramurals. This year I did flag football which was a lot of fun to help satisfy the competitive urge. Overall, I’ve been enjoying the transition because I’m more pain-free. When I was competing I had a lot of knee injuries and I would constantly wake up and have to walk around campus with my knees hurting. Honestly, if I never had injuries, I’d probably miss track a lot more, but I knew my plan was always to be done with track after college. 

STS: How did your knee injuries impact your mentality while competing?

Lee-Heidenreich: Injuries are one of the biggest mental health issues you’ll see with college sports, especially with freshmen. It happens every year where freshmen come in and they’re studs who have never had a significant injury before, but then they get to college, they’re no longer the best of the best and they get hit with an injury that puts them out for maybe six months and they don’t know what to do because they’ve been a star athlete their whole life. It’s really hard to deal with. Personally, I think I was okay, but it was really hard because you want to fit in with your team and it’s a lot tougher when you can’t compete, especially when you’re a freshman and you feel like you have something to prove. Again, I was fortunate to have gone to academically rigorous high school to prepare myself, but imagine if I hadn’t. Now you’re doing Princeton-level academics and you’re injured in your sports, so it can be really tough on people mentally. I’m not sure if there’s any perfect solution for this problem besides educating new athletes as they come in that it’s possible they’ll get bad injuries, but that doesn't mean your life is over. 

STS: Why is it important to Sack the Stigma?

Lee-Heidenreich: It’s important to help people talk about things more openly and it makes them less hesitant to reach out for help. Especially in mens’ sports at the elite level, there’s a lot of masculinity and competing interests. For me, I never wanted to be a professional track athlete, but some of my teammates did. We would be in the same class and have a test coming up and maybe I’d study a little harder for the test and not work out as much but their priority is to perform better, and they don’t care so much about the test. Everyone has different priorities and incentives, but sometimes when you’re on a team you might have a teammate talk so much about how you need to focus on winning and you feel pressure to prioritize that just because it’s something one of your teammates said. I think there can sometimes be a hive mindset that goes on on teams, so sometimes on teams, especially if there is some form of toxic masculinity, you might not be looking for help with mental health. It may feel like, “Oh, we’re a bunch of tough guys, we can get through it.” If you can sack the stigma and know that you don’t have to follow the hive mind and you can do what you need to do, that’s so important. 

STS: How do you Sack the Stigma?

Lee-Heidenreich: When I was a freshman and going through hard times, I would look up to a lot of the upperclassmen. There were some seniors that would just walk by you without acknowledgement, but there were others that would wave and say hi every time, even if I wasn’t in their event group and I never hung out with them. Just saying hi to someone and knowing their name makes it feel different. When I was an upperclassman, I really made an effort to know the names of and say hi to all the freshmen. Little things like that carry a long way. When you come into college, you think you don’t really care what people think, but you really do, and it’s nice to know that the upperclassmen look out for you, and it makes it easier for you guys to talk to each other if you have problems. I was surely never going to bring problems to the upperclassmen who were cold and walked past me every time, but I was way more willing to open up to someone who was nice to me.
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