Mental Health and Athletes: The Stigma
Studies show that nearly 60% of Wisconsinites can look at the list below and say at least one of them is prevalent in their life:
-Witness Domestic Violence
-Adult struggling with mental illness
-Adult struggling with AODA (Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse)
14% can say that four or more are true.
Add these experiences and traumas to all the uncertainties and pressures of the world today, and more than 50% of high school students report feeling anxious, tense, scared or like something bad was going to happen.
18% reported feeling like suicide was the only solution.
Despite all these facts, the stigma around mental health and asking for help remains a very real thing. Especially in athletes.
“The stigma on mental health and sports of ‘Oh, you’re not strong enough, you’re weak, you’re weak-minded,’ — all of that is always drilled into you at a young age,” says Lauren Holiday, former professional soccer player, wife of Bucks player Jrue Holiday and Stryv 365 board member. “Like, ‘Oh, you should be able to overcome everything, your feelings don’t matter.’ But, understanding that’s not always the case and understanding that stressors do come out in sports that may be what you’re dealing with personally. So, not only can [sports] be an escape in a positive way, it can always help you cover up things that are happening.”
That’s why it’s important that when students or athletes do express that they are struggling, coaches play an important role in how they respond and what next steps they should take.
“The ideal response is to clear your own thoughts and just be,” says Tim Grove, senior consultant at Wellpoint Care Network. “Just be, and hold that space with that person, maybe for two minutes. And, if you honestly think about what is required to be with that person in that moment, I know it sounds really simple, it’s really hard. Because those of us who are trying to just be have our own stuff that’s going on in our heads like, ‘What am I supposed to do, what is the right thing to say?’ If you can get to a place where you can just be, clear your mind, clear your heart, be with that person, my experience is that the rest kind of naturally falls into place. You will start to have a genuine conversation.”
More and more professional athletes have been open about their own mental health as of late, which has helped move the conversation forward, and can also help coaches when thinking about what to do with their own students.
“Mikaela Shiffrin, Simone Biles, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, what kind of coach do you think they want?” adds Grove. “Somebody that knows a little something about what they’ve been through, who has more capability to just be with them from an informed place, or somebody who doesn’t? I think somebody who doesn’t can maybe get lucky a few times, but the more that you can learn about some of this stuff we are talking about, the easier it is to have your athletes say, ‘I don’t know what it is about coach, but he understands me and he sees me in ways other people don’t see me. And, guess what, I want to play for that guy. And, not only do I want to play for that guy, I want to perform for that guy.’”
Though progress has been made, continued conversations around mental health must continue.
“I went to Northwestern University,” adds Lisa Byington, Milwaukee Bucks TV play-by-play announcer. “I played basketball and soccer there. I went to a sports psychologist, and no one knew about it. It was a big secret. It was off campus in a really small, small room. That was in the 90s, to date myself, so to see now in 2023 how far we have come is pretty, pretty awesome.”
The preceding responses were part of a “Resilience in Sports” panel, hosted by Wellpoint Care Network, Stryv 365 and the Milwaukee Bucks.
For pictures from the event, click here.