Behind the Whistle: Redefining Toughness


Emma Johnson graduated from James Madison as the program's all-time leader in caused turnovers (126).

This story initially appeared on Behind the Whistle, the official blog of the IWLCA, and is being republished with permission from the organization. Emma Johnson graduated in May from James Madison as the all-time leader in caused turnovers (126) in program history.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This entry was written as James Madison University was engaged in raising awareness regarding mental health issues in Spring 2021. The team supports Morgan’s Message, an organization that works to “eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health within the student-athlete community and equalize the treatment of physical and mental health in athletics,” the Rodgers family, who are JMU alumni, the lacrosse community, and athletes everywhere. The team wants everyone to know they are not alone. By sharing their stories, they hope to create courage and connection. Over the past few months, we have shared other entries focused on this topic, written by members of the JMU team. This is the final entry in the series.


I was always told growing up in sports that athletes are tough. At a young age, I wanted to be the best athlete I could be, and I remember telling myself that being tough was what was going to set me apart. I remember walking into my first lift as a college freshmen and my strength coach asked, “What is your mindset going to be for the year?”

That team in the Fall of 2016 was tasked with writing it on a piece of paper and hanging it up on our lockers to remind ourselves everyday of our mindset. I bet you can all assume what I wrote: “I am going to be physically and mentally tough.” Looking back on that statement, I don’t think my freshman self knew the distinct difference between being physically and mentally tough. And if I am being honest, I don’t think most college athletes do. That piece of paper was hung up on my locker beyond my freshmen year and forced me to believe that if I was tough on the outside, that meant I was tough on the inside. Which was completely untrue.

Fast forward four years later. Entering my senior season, I was complimented for the highly decorated career I was having, and everyone expected me to continue to perform at the highest level. I thrived off the support I was receiving and felt that I was in stride to hit my peak performance as a player that season. Then life happened, and a global pandemic hit, and it canceled that dream of a season.

Lacrosse was over, and I was forced to come to terms that my career was done without me having any control over it. All I will say is that sitting here today still at JMU with the ability to continue to play lacrosse is such a blessing to me. Lacrosse holds a big place in my heart, and when given the opportunity to retain my fifth year of eligibility, there were no questions asked as to if I would come back. What no one would ever have thought, especially myself, was that my final season was going to be one of the toughest of my life.

College athletics is simply different. We know as a society that almost all aspects of life are different, but it’s hard to see sport in a different light. The fall season was not the same, and our only competitor was ourselves. I was still just happy to put my cleats on everyday and to be able to step on the field. It felt almost unreal. At the end of the fall, I was picking up my stick every day, and my love for the sport had never been so much.

But things during winter break began to change. The start of the spring season was approaching, and I found myself struggling to physically meet the demands of being a college athlete. I struggled to find motivation to work out. When I was able to get myself on a treadmill, I would cry the whole time, and when I was done, I would lay in bed for hours after because I felt “defeated.” I bet you all wonder why there was a sudden change in heart. To answer that, it had finally hit me that my class that I had started my journey with was not ending it with me. And to be honest, that made me feel alone and isolated, a feeling I have never had felt in my career.

On good or bad days, I knew I could count on any single one of them, and I knew they weren’t going to be back in Harrisonburg when I had to report back. Many of them had moved on to their next steps in life, and I felt stuck where I was. Preseason for our team was a time when we were all isolated from teammates, friends and family, and I struggled with not feeling connected. I began to question why I was here, why I had decided to come back, and why I was putting myself through it if it continued to make me feel so sad all the time.

This feeling went on and on, without anyone knowing. My attitude of, “If I am tough on the outside, then that means I am tough on the inside,” was why very few people knew that I was in a very dark place. I am a fifth-year captain, four-year starter, and I thought I needed to be tough for my team and not show my vulnerability. I felt that I was responsible for taking care of the team before myself, and I didn’t want them to know that on the inside I wasn’t tough for them. Little did I know that the strength I needed would come from them. I will never forget one of my teammates, Brit Bill, reaching out to me and saying, “You are such a strong player and human, and I hate to see you upset and not thriving. EVERYONE DESERVES TO THRIVE AND BE HAPPY.” That conversation gave me the push to reach out for help and to take care of myself. This showed me that my team supported me in getting help to be better for them. To this day, I don’t think Brit Bill realized how much she changed my life.

I want to remind everyone that being an athlete is an experience like no other. We are challenged every day to be our best physically, mentally and emotionally. It is OK to not be OK. No one is perfect every day. Being “tough” has so many layers, and as an athletic community, some days we forget that it goes beyond physicality.

I am tough because I was able to lean on others for support, I am tough because I took the time to learn mechanisms for dealing with being disconnected and alone, and I am tough for prioritizing my needs to be better for my team. Being a great athlete comes from all the sacrifices and passion that you give to your sport, not from what you show on the outside. Not one of those things was possible without people encouraging me to talk about mental health.

No one should ever feel alone, and when we do, it’s great to know that there are people more than willing to support one another. I can rightfully say that the little girl who first found my love for sport would be proud of the tough woman I have become today. Today, I want everyone to join the Morgan’s Message initiative to normalize the conversation of mental health. We see you. We hear you. We are there for you (anytime, anyplace, anywhere).

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