Welcome to a new edition of RealJock.com's "Ask Billy" column with sports and life advice from Billy Bean, former professional athlete and author of "Going the Other Way: Lessons from a Life in and Out of Major League Baseball." Do you have a question for Billy? Send him an email at email@example.com.
I am a professional triathlete starting to move up in the tri world. I have been in sports most of my life. I came out when I was running track for UCLA but have now found that I am having to go through that process once again in my triathlon life.
I am trying to decide how "out" I want to be in my sports career. On one hand I think that it is important to be out. I have always felt that the best way to make changes in society is by example. There are no openly gay professional triathletes at the moment, and I think it would be good for the gay world for me to be out. And of course I also see that there is a large potential in sponsorship by using the "gay card." However, it seems that there could be some unnecessary stress with all that. Since you were in professional sports and came out, do you have any advice on the issue?
Brandon Del Campo
[Editor’s note: Brandon had a second question about pre-race injuries for Billy as well. For ease of reading, we have placed it after Billy’s answer to his first question.]
It is very important for you to know that I was not out as a professional major league baseball player. When I walked away from baseball in 1996, it was a completely different era for gay and lesbian athletes. I wish I had known as much about myself back then as I do now, because I would love to have been able to play with self-acceptance and confidence on the field. I was tormented by my sexuality at that time, and it kept me from playing to my true potential. Coming out would have been a huge task, especially in those days.
As many people know, just recently, John Amaechi, a former NBA player, came out of the closet—and it created a large volume of dialogue on the news and sports radio. There had been rumors that a "current" NBA player was going to come out. When the news revealed that it was John—a former player—I know I was quietly disappointed that we still had not reached the day where a current player felt comfortable enough to come out.
However, even a former player caused controversy. Two days later, there was an uproar when Tim Hardaway, himself a former NBA player, said on a national radio show, "I hate homosexuals, and I don't think it belongs in the world or in the United States." Aside from that being a hateful, ignorant rant, his comments showed what many athletes in male team sports know as "status quo" in that environment...even in 2007.
The fact that you have written a letter to this web site along with your name tells me that you must already be out in some areas of your life. I am sure a few of your fellow competitors must already know your sexuality. I also know from running a couple of marathons that the environment is not quite the same as a major league, all-male team sport.
I would encourage you to come forward, always knowing that you will be acknowledged for your ability and you will certainly inspire many young men and women who want to compete is this incredibly difficult sport. There will be some stress from being so generous with your truth, but as long as you surround yourself with a strong support group, I am sure you will find it is worth it. If financial gain comes from your honesty, that is a plus, but I would not do it solely for that reason. Be true to yourself, and you will release your full potential.
Brandon’s second question for Billy:
My other question is regarding the mental side of sports. I have this theory about an issue that I call a "pre-race injury." Have you ever had a big game coming up and found a strange "injury" pop up? Did you play anyway and then, when the game was over, the injury was gone? I'm not sure if those kinds of things happen in baseball, but it seems in the triathlon/running world it happens all the time. I am trying to figure out if some of my pre-race issues are more in my head or just bad timing. Don't get me wrong, the injury, whether mental or not, is actually there. You can't deny what you feel, but I think there may be a way to get rid of the injury if you can get the head on straight. Did you ever see any connections to fear and anxiety manifesting as injuries? It may sound a bit crazy but I am really trying to figure this out and thought I would run it by someone who did a different sport like baseball.
There is absolutely some truth to this. To me it proves how damaging stress is to our body and mind.
Many times when I was playing pro baseball, a pitcher would say his shoulder or elbow was beginning to hurt before he was to pitch a big game. I remember always feeling something in my legs—like a tender quadriceps or hamstring muscle—if it was cold or I was exhausted from traveling. I played outfield and I needed to be one of the fastest players on the field. I realized that I was creating a fear that began to dominate my thoughts and transferred into actual pain.
Focusing on positive thinking as much as you can will certainly reduce this phenomenon for you. I know that the quality of your training gives you confidence for each race, so keep your mind strong, and repeat in your head many times how great you feel and how prepared you are for your next race.
I think keeping realistic goals will also help you keep the stress from rising too high in our heads. Of course you want to be the best triathlete possible and win every race. If your preparation is strong, then you will know that you can achieve a personal best without hurting yourself or overdoing it early in your race. In baseball they always said, "In the big leagues, it's 90 percent mental." As simple as it sounds, I finally believe it's true.
Good luck and never stop trying to get better.
Do you have a question for Billy? Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.