The First Step

Natalie Wojcik, a former member of the University of Michigan Women’s Gymnastics Team and Master in Social Work (MSW) candidate, is a groundbreaking leader as she strives for change by opening up and creating space for conversations about mental health. Wojcik will graduate from the management and leadership pathway within the UofM School of Social Work in December. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Wojcik is the oldest of four girls, all of the gymnasts. At the age of fourteen, she was invited to the University of Michigan for an unofficial visit, later resulting in a commitment to the gymnastics team. Following her triple major in Psychology, Spanish, and Linguistics in undergrad, Wojcik continued her Michigan academic career in the School of Social Work, and announced she would be returning to the gymnastics team for her fifth and final year of eligibility in 2022-23. She finished off her fifth year with a team and individual Big Ten Title and a chance to compete in the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Finals as an individual resulting in All American Honors.

Brooke Woodrum (Sack the Stigma): How has your experience being a captain on the Michigan Women’s Gymnastics Team been?

Natalie Wojcik: I have really liked being a captain this season, especially with the collaborative approach the team takes. There are four of us in captain roles, so it has been really exciting to problem solve with our various perspectives and to use each of our strengths to be creative when it comes to solving these problems. The most important lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that in life, not everyone is going to approach situations in the same way as you, and it’s important to still hold space for all varying perspectives in order to compromise. It’s really important to us, as captains, to make sure each member of the team feels individually valued and supported. 

STS: How have the things you have learned as a student helped you navigate problem-solving as a captain?

Wojcik: As a student in the School of Social Work, you learn about the importance of understanding how people’s different identities, values, and lived experiences shape how they view the world. I feel I have grown deeper in my appreciation for others in that sense, as I can further understand the social factors that contribute to the way people make decisions. 

STS: How does stress in your life affect your gymnastics performance?

Wojcik: I try to keep my personal life and gymnastics very separate, because in gymnastics, it can be dangerous to be unfocused. I try to acknowledge any stress I’m experiencing outside of the gym, because pushing it down and ignoring it doesn’t help. However, I remind myself that there is a time and place to work through this stress, and practice is not the right environment. If there is a lot on my mind before a practice, I may talk to a coach or a teammate about the way I’m feeling, just so someone else knows what I’m going through. It’s great to have my team to talk to so I can leave my stress at the door and be fully focused for practice. 

STS: Is there a specific situation where staying mentally focused is more challenging than other situations? How do you stay focused in these situations?

Wojcik: The competitive environment is definitely more difficult to be focused in. When you go to a competition somewhere else, there are a lot of factors that are very different from our practice environment. All competitions are different, so it’s possible that the equipment feels different than in a practice facility, there may be loud music or it could be really quiet, and there are often large crowds of people. When you go to a competition, you never really know what you’re going to experience, so that can pose a challenge to your mental focus. Something I use to bring my focus back in these situations is mental cue words to help keep some consistency from the practice facility to a competition. Ultimately, you only have control over your own thoughts and actions, so rather than focusing on things that are distracting and feel different from practice, I try to hone in on the things I can do to make it feel as similar to practice as possible.

STS: How does having mental cue words and practicing other mental focus strategies translate to other situations in life?

Wojcik: With the mental cue word strategy, I make sure I use them every day in training to make sure they’re as ingrained in my routines as the physical skills are. This strategy is a more performance-based approach, so I don’t necessarily use it in non-performance areas, but it can work in other performance situations. However, the confidence I get from doing routines translates to other areas of my life, whether it be in presentations, exams, or other things. I try to get in the right headspace and focus on what’s in my control, similar to what I do in my routines. 

STS: As you’ve mentioned, individual mental focus is essential as a gymnast, but how does this translate to the team as a whole? How does team mental focus and a positive team atmosphere impact your performance?

Wojcik: A positive team atmosphere is the most important thing for us, so it’s something we work on every day in practice. At the beginning of the year, each gymnast is encouraged to have a set of mental cue words they are going to use in their routines. We have each gymnast write down their cue words, and then we all work together to hold one another accountable. Sometimes we do activities like walk-throughs of our routines, saying our cue words out loud to another teammate, to maintain that accountability. We use this exercise and others to take a creative and collaborative approach to team focus, because sometimes another teammate may have a strategy that resonates with you, and so we like to share ideas. As a team, we also have a strong foundation of mutual respect for each other, which is especially helpful with stress-management. I can always go to a teammate to express the way I feel, and they know they can come to me too, and I’ll be receptive to what they have going on in their own life. We encourage each other to open up about our feelings so we can all leave our outside stress at the door and work on what needs to be done that day in practice. 

STS: What are some skills you have learned during your time as an athlete that help you outside of gymnastics and that will continue to help you in life after gymnastics?

Wojcik: Discipline is definitely a big part of gymnastics that is important in other areas of life as well. As a team, we have a structured schedule with many commitments to prepare for, similar to school and professional settings, so practicing discipline has been important. Another important thing has been gratitude, which I reflected a lot on during the COVID-19 pandemic. During our 2021 season following quarantine, there were a lot of restrictions in place for us, so it felt like every moment and part of our schedule was entirely uncertain. Every day, we had to dig deep into gratitude and be grateful for what we did have, because you never knew when it could be taken away from you.

STS: There is a lot of stigma around mental health in the media, especially for athletes competing at elite levels. Do you think athletes’ mental health is accurately & fairly portrayed in the media?

Wojcik: I think the answer is definitely complex, so yes and no. When it comes to visibility of mental health in the media, I have seen a lot of stories highlighting experiences of female athletes. This is great because it starts the mental health conversation, but it doesn’t end there. Male athletes are equally as affected by mental health, so there is still room to grow in the conversation of men’s mental health in sports. It’s great to have stories about mental health be published, as it opens a conversation to the public on such a large platform, but there are obviously going to be people that don’t perceive this well. I think a great example of this was when Simone Biles took a step down during the 2020 Summer Olympics, and not everyone understood why. It’s really important for athletes to have their own platform so they can tell their own story. Sometimes it can be challenging for others to report on sport-related mental health qualms without personal experience. As a gymnast, I am familiar with what Simone Biles was suffering from, the Twisties, which is a problem unique to gymnastics. It was interesting to read some articles trying to tackle this mental health issue without a deep knowledge of it, because that can create misinformation and misunderstanding. Ultimately, it’s important for athletes to be able to share their own successes and struggles openly online. 

STS: What has been your most important mental health takeaway from your five years as a student athlete at the University of Michigan? 

Wojcik:  It takes work. Your mental health is not always going to thrive on its own, so it’s important to be self-aware and know when you’re struggling. It’s important that we feel supported in seeking help and making personal changes to get us closer to our goals. My biggest takeaway is to be intentional and aware of your mental health.

STS: Why do you think it is important to Sack the Stigma?

Wojcik:  For athletes, it can be really difficult to break the stigma around mental health, as there are many stereotypes like, “You’re weak if you talk about your mental health,” which of course isn’t true. I think Sack the Stigma is a great campaign to give athletes a space to talk about their mental health, and I love the way it allows us space to talk. You can’t break down stigma without first opening the door to conversation. 

STS: How do you Sack the Stigma?

Wojcik: One of the things I like to do is post about mental health on my social media platforms, because that’s where I have the biggest reach, but I also think it’s important to talk about mental health within my community and my team. Interpersonal conversations are just as important as posting about mental health on bigger platforms. I remember as a freshman I didn’t hear about mental health awareness very much, but over the past five years I’ve been a student-athlete at UofM, I’ve heard mental health talked about more and more. Now, I hardly go a day without having a conversation about the importance of mental health. 

Oftentimes, the hardest part of making change is taking the first step. Opening the door to conversation, as Wojcik highlighted, is the most important first step in sacking the stigma, but it is often the most difficult. We must allow athletes to speak for themselves and feel comfortable to share their struggles, without fear of blame or hate. Whether this be through social media posts, interviews, or through interpersonal conversations with coaches and teammates, it is important for athletes to feel comfortable and encouraged in their vulnerability and openness. Mental health is largely stigmatized not just for athletes, but for everyone. It is undoubtedly a challenging topic of conversation, but every conversation we have, no matter how big or how small, fosters growth and acceptance. In the words of Michigan Gymnast, Natalie Wojcik, opening the door to conversation about mental health is how we can Sack the Stigma.

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