Do you remember Rebecca Marino?
In Canada, we rarely see elite Tennis talents that make a name for themselves on the world stage, but Rebecca was one of them. In 2011, at the age of 20, Marino climbed to a career best 38th in the rankings of worldwide players.
Marino hadn’t been a highly touted junior prospect and had actually planned to enroll in college prior to breaking out in the tennis scene. The quick success mounted and catapulted her up the rankings faster and further than she was prepared to handle.
“Not expecting it, I felt like I was thrown into this machine, and I didn’t understand how it worked,” she said.
2012 saw Marino take a step back from tennis for the first time, taking seven months away from the sport. After returning for a few months, she retired in February 2013 at the young age of 22.
Even then, retiring at such a young age and at the cusp of stardom, Marino’s retirement gained a lot of attention, especially in Canada with her being one of the brightest tennis prospects in generations.
While her story and reasons for leaving tennis resonated with others, she was uneasy being the spokesperson for athletes struggling with depression.
“It wasn’t something I was prepared for, and it’s still something I’m kind of grappling with,” Marino said. “I’m still a really private person, and so for people to come up to me and tell me all of the things they’ve dealt with, or how I’ve affected them, it’s difficult sometimes, because I don’t really know what to say. Even though I’m happy that I’ve helped people, it can be overwhelming because I’m not professionally trained to help people.”
Following her retirement, Marino spent a summer working for her family’s construction business, pouring cement and digging through clay. Soon after she returned to tennis, this time in a coaching capacity, while she was enrolled at the University of British Columbia studying English Literature.
In her second year, Marino, with her athletic acumen, was recruited by UBC’s rowing coach to join the team. Participating on the rowing team improved Marino’s fitness helped her regain a sense of identity.
“To have a competitive outlet through a team like that was super fun,” she said. “It made me feel like I was a part of the university community. People didn’t look at me for my tennis anymore; they just looked at me as a student-athlete.”
In February 2017, Marino received some life-altering news as her father, Joe, was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“After he finished chemo, I kind of took a step back and wanted to look at what was important in my life,” she said. “I didn’t want to live with any regrets, and I thought that tennis was the one thing in my life that I kind of wish I had a do-over for.”
In August 2017, a week before the Fall semester was to begin, Marino withdrew from her classes, quit her coaching job and moved to Montreal to begin her quest towards a comeback at Tennis Canada’s training center.
Marino returned to tennis in unspectacular fashion after not re-entering tennis’ antidoping program in time. Her comeback began modestly last January at a series of small tournaments in Turkey. She won her first 19 matches, including her first 30 sets. Marino worked tirelessly throughout the year to improve her ranking to its current spot of 216th, which was enough to accomplish her goal of entering the Australian Open qualifying draw.
“…it’s pretty cool that I was able to do this, and to get this far, from no ranking to suddenly in the qualies of a Slam, ” she said, after suffering a loss in straight sets.
This time, Marino has no intentions of stepping away from the sport and is making plans for the long haul. To do that, she knows that she has to cherish the experience and work to make it more pleasant and sustainable. One key to doing this, she says, is staying in better contact with friends, including more trips home to Vancouver. This will help ground her from what can be a suffocating bubble in the world of tennis.
“My friends don’t play tennis, so they don’t care if I win or lose,” she told the New York Times. “They’re just concerned about how I’m doing as a person, if I’m enjoying myself, and when I’ll be back so we can hang out. My whole structure this time around is a little bit different, and I have a lot of things outside of tennis that keep me grounded.”
“Previously, I felt like my identity was just ‘tennis player.’ But now I have many things that form my identity, and I feel like I’m very whole and very balanced.”
Rebecca’s story is a great reminder that the ‘guardians’ of aspiring athletes (i.e., parents, coaches, medical providers) need to take into account total athlete wellness. It is not just about developing athletic talent but also resourcing the athlete with personal assets required to handle the demands placed on them as they progress through the sport system. Taking a proactive approach, encouraging young athletes to build resilience and mental fitness tools can promote protective factor that help guard against ill-effects that can come from pressure filled environments such as struggles with mental health.
Another lesson we can learn from Rebecca’s story is the need to “protect the athletes plurality”, much like John Amaechi challenged a room full of sport psychologists during his opening keynote at their World Renown conference.
As young athletes are developing we need to expose them to a range of experiences so they can have a diversified identity versus foreclosing to only the athlete role. James Marcia (1966) presented a model of identity formation which has been used in identity development over the years. According to this model, many young aspiring athletes skip the important phases of identity development due to intense focus and heightened importance of their sport role by those around them. As a result, they learn that sport is no longer what you do, but rather it is an extension of who you are.
The problem with the lack of separation between what you do and who you are is it leaves the athlete with the intense pressure to perform or feeling empty and unworthy anytime they don’t meet expectations.
Rebecca is a great example of the importance of developing a holistic sense of self, as she said “Previously, I felt like my identity was just ‘tennis player.’ But now I have many things that form my identity, and I feel like I’m very whole and very balanced.” Stepping away from sport and exploring different ways to show up in the world helped to reinforce that she is “enough” with or without sport creating a new sense of freedom.
Unfortunately, not all athletes get this second chance. Help your aspiring athlete get it right the first time around by developing the WHOLE athlete. Wishing Rebecca all the best on her continued journey!