Kristina Kocsis was six or seven years old the first time she was on skates. She began playing hockey not long after.
More than a decade later, after competing at elite levels throughout her childhood and teenage years, the third-year Tommies women’s hockey defender had to step away from her favourite game.
Along with her recovery from a lower back injury she sustained while training in her second year at St. Thomas University, Kocsis suffered from anxiety while trying to balance her classes, sport and part-time job.
“As soon as you stop playing, your physical fitness takes a hit,” Kocsis, 20, said about being sidelined.
Last semester, procrastination was an issue for Kocsis. The psychology student then turned to putting something on paper for the sake of having something to hand in.
“The inside of me told me I had to hand something in where I’ve never not done that,” she said.
“Many tests in psych were multiple choice or short answer, so I always studied, but I didn’t remember anything.”
To make matters worse, the softspoken Kocsis said, the fitness testing required for her and her teammates to play became overwhelming, especially when she was being evaluated shortly after struggling in the classroom.
She would have panic attacks during tests in class that came not long before she was pressed on her physical conditioning and nutrition.
After having some difficulties reaching the fitness score she had to attain to keep playing, Kocsis achieved it late last semester. But her anxiety kept her from seeing it as positive.
“I always wondered what would be next,” said Kocsis, who stands at five-foot-four and has brown hair and eyes.
“That’s when I realized something wasn’t working and I had to pay attention to how I’m feeling.”
A native of Burlington, Ont., Kocsis began considering leaving the game after the Tommies’ holiday break began in December. She accepted her fate as a player after returning home for Christmas, when she discussed her recent struggles with her friends and family.
“They said I had to be happy and that I was burning myself out,” said Kocsis. “They all knew I wasn’t myself.”
Kocsis said her STU teammates noticed, as well.
At first, Kocsis said, she was hesitant to quit because she still has more to contribute to the team, which didn’t make her news of stepping aside any easier for her fellow Tommies to absorb.
“I still go to the games, and it’s hard to watch where I still want to play to my potential,” she said.
“But I also had to consider what would make me happy, which was tough.”
Withdrawing from active competition is something Ryan Hamilton, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick, said is helpful if an athlete gets too overwhelmed or struggles to handle performace-related anxiety.
The sport psychologist who works with the UNB Varsity Reds and the Canadian Sport Centre, along with the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League, said stepping back can be difficult.
“If your eggs are all in the athlete basket, and things are going great, man what a ride that is,” said Hamilton.
“But when things aren’t going well, and there aren’t other passions or distractions, it can be a consuming thing.”
Hamilton said student athletes often lead busy lives where they’re pursuing careers outside of sports, as well.
“They also want to have success in their sport while working part-time to make ends meet,” he said.
That situation arguably sums up Kocsis in a nutshell. Aside from her academic and athletic commitments, Kocsis works a few shifts per week at the J.B. O’Keefe Fitness Centre reception desk on the STU campus.
As well, she hopes to complete an honours in psychology next year and research mental health for her thesis. Her goal is to work with hospitals that promote mental health awareness and eventually become a clinical psychologist.
Kocsis hanging up the skates comes on the heels of playing minor hockey in Burlington before suiting up for her Notre Dame Secondary School team and playing junior with the Stoney Creek Sabres of the Provincial Women’s Hockey League in Ontario.
She was then recruited to the Tommies in 2013 by head coach Peter Murphy.
Kocsis’ recent mental health battle hasn’t been her first.
After Grade 8, her parents got separated. She also sought help for what she said was a borderline eating disorder in high school.
“It was tough getting up every day and going to the rink when I didn’t want to get out of bed,” she said of her latest mental health ordeal.
After she and her teammates finished an exhibition tour in Montreal in late December, Kocsis said, Murphy and his assistants were the first to learn of her plans to step back as a player.
However, she planned to stay involved with the team as a volunteer and provide moral support to the other players.
Kocsis then informed her teammates at their first practice after the holidays. But first, she told Tommies captain Kelty Apperson what she would say in case she became overcome with emotion while addressing the team in its dressing room at Grant-Harvey Centre.
“I got halfway through what I wanted to say and started balling my eyes out,” she said.
“Kelt stood up and finished the details. The rest of the girls stood and gave me a group hug, which made me cry even more.”
Although she only sees game action from the sidelines now, Kocsis still practices with the Tommies sometimes and travels with them to road games.
She said her coaches and teammates sympathize with her and haven’t treated her any differently than when she played.
“I’m OK now,” said Kocsis.
“Part of being OK and happy came from asking what I want to do and what makes me happy.”