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If you’re reading this, it’s not likely because you’re a slacker or a procrastinator. Most likely, you’re the type of person that is kept up at night worrying about the future. You’re the type of person that’s invested in self-improvement, always trying to find ways to better yourself.

These are all good traits, but may work against you…especially when the anxiety begins to weigh you down. You may work hard, have talent and be intelligent, but these aren’t the secrets to success; they’re merely tools. It’s handy to have them, but you have to know how to use them in order to reach your maximum potential.

Between training for tennis, managing my academics and securing an internship, I’ve been discovering new ways to uncover my own untapped potential. Here are some of the methods I’ve come up with:

1. Embrace Your Individuality

This is a hard thing to do when everyone around you is trying to get you to conform to a particular mold or stereotype. Especially in the crucial stages of adolescence, it’s important to understand what makes you you. Knowing your strengths, weaknesses, talents and interests are all part of embracing your individuality.

If you have a knack for arts and crafts, it’s easy to accept your talent as useless or listen to the critics that tell you it’s a hopeless line of work. But if it weren’t for the people that like to paper mache and refurbish wood, we wouldn’t have beautiful, handcrafted journals or uniquely refinished furniture. Places like Etsy wouldn’t even exist.

In the book Imagine, Jonah Lehrer discusses the secrets to creative success. He conveys how the interchange of ideas between professionals in varying fields helps stimulate creativity. Differing beliefs, interests and talents, as well as a healthy dose of the unfamiliar, are what produce some of the most successful innovations.

2. Take More Risks

It seems the initial reaction of young professionals is not to speak up, as if keeping quiet is the road to a promotion. While this may apply to some situations, you can’t dismiss the fact that your ideas may be as good as any of your coworkers, or that any question you may have is likely thoughtful and valid. The issue is that the fear of failure always seems to override the chance to succeed.

Nine out of ten times, your question won’t be stupid…your idea won’t be considered dumb. For the one time it is, don’t sweat it. Few people are fired over dumb questions; a lot more are promoted due to sharp ideas. And most importantly, you don’t want someone else to come up with that same idea later on and reap the rewards. The “what ifs”are always the worst.

3. Don’t Worry About Things Out of Your Control

This is a big one for me. There will always be that one teacher that is determined to give you a B no matter how much you deserved an A. Some days, the traffic may be so bad that it takes you two hours to get home from work, even though you live five miles away. You’ll be sick during finals week. You’ll be judged for how you look. People close to you will change.

The key is: Life happens. While it’s easy to fret and blame others or ourselves for the things that are inevitable, it doesn’t help get us anywhere. Most importantly, it doesn’t help us grow as a person. Why give yourself early gray hairs for something you couldn’t have helped?

As much as people tell you otherwise, you have control over your happiness. While you can’t always control the bad things that happen to you, such as being dumped by a boyfriend or a family member passing away, you can control how you respond. While you may grieve for a while, how you channel your emotions afterward is what’s important. You can lock yourself in a room for a week or you can go for a run; the choice is yours.

This idea also translates to the professional world. When you don’t get a promotion, you can mope around feeling sorry for yourself or you can work even harder. You can handle criticism with a heavy heart or you can use it to fuel your ambition. The people that make it to the top get there because they never gave up.

The most important thing is entering a new situation without too many expectations. Expectations are the surest route to disappointment. This doesn’t mean undervaluing yourself, but diving in with an open mind and open heart. Oftentimes, the things we have planned for ourselves don’t turn out to be as great as the paths we happen upon by circumstance.

Whether you’re graduating high school or starting a business, your potential is something that should always be ruminating in the back of your mind. Ask yourself what your goals are. They could be as simple as writing in your journal that night, or they could be as big as being hired by NASA. When you ask yourself, “Is it possible?” know that the answer is always “yes.”

Some people believed I would be a strong, high school tennis player. Others believed I would go pro. The only thing that ever mattered to me was what I thought. And when people asked, “What’s your goal?” I’d always answer: “To see how far I can get.”

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Most parents seem to sign their children up for sports hoping that they’ll learn the importance of dedication, teamwork and responsibility, while “staying out of trouble.” Though these are realistic intentions, few people realize the true value of athletics. By picking up a tennis racquet, I wasn’t preparing myself for college athletics; I was preparing myself for life.

After nine years playing tennis and two playing for the University of Nebraska, I’ve come to recognize some of the most important things that I’ve learned over the years:

How to Handle Adversity

You may be strapped with homework, your coach is screaming at you and you’re running on four hours of sleep, but you still have to play tennis. Right? Well, I can tell you that the ones that choose not to don’t make it very far. So the answer is yes. Though being an athlete has its perks, the initial description I just gave is the life of an athlete. Something is bound to go wrong on a daily basis, but you have to keep picking yourself back up. You’re bound to forget about that day that your boyfriend wouldn’t speak to you, but you’re likely to regret the hours you spent worrying about it instead of giving yourself the chance to grow.

Choose the High Road

After you’ve played a sport at a certain level, you begin to see that hard work pays off. You’ve put in the hours and you’re now beginning to reap the rewards. So the next time you’re given a choice, you’re going to choose the harder path. Whether it’s doing sprints after practice, taking extra time to study for a test, or making amends with a friend even when you did nothing wrong, you understand what it means to take the difficult route. And you become a stronger, better person because of it.

How to Make Tough Choices

I’m ashamed to admit it, but when I was trying to choose which college to go to, I spent an entire evening crying on the couch. There I was, with several scholarship offers, bawling my eyes out. Most of my friends had had their “moment” where they “suddenly knew,” and I was distraught, simply waiting for mine.

But not everyone has that “moment.” In fact, I sometimes think it’s better if you don’t. I’m a realist and a planner. I had my pro-con lists down to every nitpicky detail, from strictly academics to which school had a Starbucks on campus. Though the lists may not have made my decision for me, they definitely guided me along the way. Not to mention, I conducted an extensive amount of research that I’m sure few student-athletes did.

But when it came down to it, the ability to make the decision was innate. I knew enough about myself, and the school, to make a decision I could live with. My friends were right about one thing, and that’s to treat it like any other relationship. It was the right combination of using my head and following my gut.

Self-Reliance

None of the benefits I just mentioned would be possible if it weren’t for one thing: self-reliance. This perfect combination of confidence and independence is what drives you to make tough decisions, run extra sprints and keep your head high. Throughout your entire life you’ll have people telling you 25 different ways to do something, but you have to stick to your guns. There is not one specific path to success, and it’s definitely not a straight line.

Courage

When Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure, he hit the nail on the head. To me, this is the most important of them all. Being an athlete, you learn to handle high-stress situations, often when they are least convenient. You’re under the pressure of your coaches, professors and parents to do well, and it all begins to add up.

If I’m on the court, playing the #1 position for my team in a conference match against Northwestern, I can’t break down. It’s simply not an option. As an athlete, you understand when the situation is more important than your emotions. You understand the consequences and are able to register that it’s only temporary. To be able to evaluate all of these things in a matter of seconds can only be defined as one thing: grace under pressure.

I can’t imagine trying to summarize the lessons I’ve learned over hours of training on the court. Dedicating my life to athletics not only benefited my health and my college experiences, but also made me grow as a person.

Being an athlete forces you into the tight, uncomfortable crevices of life that most people aren’t familiar with. But in reality, everyone is pushed out of his or her comfort zone at some point in time. Athletes just face it earlier than most; sometimes earlier than they’re ready for. So the next time around, they’re more than prepared. Behind the braided ponytails, bruised shins and tired eyes, they’re becoming something bigger than themselves.