Dealing with the Pressure of Success

Coming from Canada, I had a limited knowledge of American college gymnastics. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that a little web-searching made me realize that the NCAA was not only an option, but my desired destination. It presented a vital and challenging opportunity to balance the pursuit of my academic and athletic aspirations. Throughout high school, if I wasn’t studying my schoolwork or practicing gymnastics, I was studying gymnastics. I would study gymnasts who were better than me by watching countless Youtube videos daily. Many of the athletes I admired were American NCAA gymnasts, or American Junior athletes who would later become my college competitors.

I wasn’t nearly a top recruit in my class, but I always believed I had what it took to eventually compete with the best in America. Fortunately, University of Minnesota head coach Mike Burns saw it in me too, and for that I am tremendously grateful. I came into my freshman year with lofty ambitions and a point to prove. I dedicated myself to succeeding and making a name for myself, and I ended up exceeding my ambitions. I ended my freshman year earning All-American and First Team all-Big Ten honors, as well as becoming the University of Minnesota’s Male Rookie of the Year. My breakout freshman year was everything I had dreamed of as a kid, and I continued into my sophomore year with the same tenacity. With more success came bigger goals, but also more pressure.

After a successful regular season, I earned the Big Ten co-Gymnast of the Year accolade, another absolutely surreal accomplishment. I entered championship season with colossal expectations for myself. First was the Big Ten Championships, arguably the most important meet of the year for my team. I took the responsibility of being a leader for my team on the scoreboards, and ultimately failed—emphatically. I had my worst performance of the year and the Big Ten title slipped from our hands. My performance absolutely rocked me. There was a relatively quick turnaround as we had the NCAA Championships two weeks later. The NCAA Championships is a landmark event individually, as it is where All-American honors are earned. A second disappointing performance saw me miss my goal of repeating as an All-American. Again, I had let the team down when it mattered the most. Feeling burnt out and dwindling in confidence, I competed at the Canadian Championships the following month producing the outright worst performance of my career. One month earlier I had been awarded Big Ten co-Gymnast of the Year, and now there I was: humiliated, exhausted, bewildered, and defeated.

Justin Karstadt | Photo: University of Minnesota Athletic Communications


Bewilderment was an especially notable feeling during this time. I couldn’t understand why my career had taken such a turn for the worse. Entering my Junior year, I hadn’t yet moved past the effects of the prior year’s failures. After struggling in the beginning of the season I hit that kind of ‘rock bottom’ where I became sick of my current state of being. I was struggling and tired of wondering if I would ever again be the gymnast I was capable of being. I embarked on a drastic lifestyle switch, focusing 100% of my energy on improving my gymnastics (whilst maintaining good grades of course!). I thought I was dedicated before, but rock bottom brought out a whole different beast in me. When I say 100% I mean 100%, inside and outside the gym. I became obsessed. This obsession steered me back on track, but it was not sustainable and proved problematic when I approached the Big Ten Championships. After months of relentless preparation, again I performed poorly at the Big Ten Championships. I had spent months working tirelessly in fear of failure, but it was here where I realized that its potential is something nobody can run from; failure is a part of life and being human.

Following the Big Ten Championships, I thought back to my previous months of sacrifice and dedication. Despite my failure, I refused to believe those months were all for nothing. I believe balance is a fundamental principle of life. While it is imperative to personally strive for balance, I think life does its own balancing in some ways. I like to model my life around the quote, “Hard work pays off… eventually.” Heading into the NCAA championships, instead of fearing the possibility of failure, I acknowledged its fundamental existence. But still, I carried the belief that eventually my work would pay off. If not Big Ten’s—If not NCAA’s—eventually, my work would pay off. With a much clearer head and a different sense of trust in my preparation, I performed my best routines of the year earning All American honors on both the Pommel Horse and the Parallel Bars. With this newly balanced approach I continued with success at the Canadian Championships and at a World Challenge Cup event, in Turkey, where I represented Canada. I added a national championship and a World Challenge Cup bronze medal to round out my resounding comeback year. My work had paid off. The balancing quality that I believe inhabits life had given me what I felt I deserved… and more!

Justin Karstadt | Photo: University of Minnesota Athletic Communications


When looking at successful athletes, it’s easy to admire their highs, but their lows serve important lessons and tell stories that deserve to be heard. So, I thank Fanword for the opportunity to share my story thus far as a college athlete. Writing this story has reminded me of my days idolizing the collegiate gymnasts of the past. It’s daunting to think that the next generation may stumble across and admire videos of myself; I hope those who do, end up stumbling across this too. To those who’ve stuck around this far down the page, remember: Hard work pays off… eventually!



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