Athletes are taught at an early age the proper methods and procedures to maintain physical health. They go to practices and train in the gym, all in order to achieve peak performance.
But what is done to take care of mental health? How does an athlete accurately assess their stress, anxiety and depression levels? Further, what can be done to fully understand what triggers them both on and off the playing field?
These questions represent an underlying and often ignored topic in today’s college athletic environment, and that’s mental health. The answers to these questions come in various forms, but stem from two overarching themes: stigma and lack of knowledge.
According to Jordan Bratt, adjunct Psychology professor, these themes are common at the college.
“There’s still an old-school mentality when dealing about mental health in athletics,” Bratt said. “That it’s weak if you don’t have a strong mind or if you speak out on an issue. This is not the case at all. You see a lot of college students that either don’t have the time, the resources or the information to know what they’re going through [mentally], and that there’re places to go to alleviate pressure in their lives.”
Bratt’s words are true: not every college athlete is comfortable sharing their personal thoughts to everyone. Sometimes, it takes time for an athlete to open up about a mental health issue.
Semaj Ray’s Struggle with Depression
For men’s basketball player Semaj Ray, this process took years. His experience with depression and living with an unhealthy mental state started early. Growing up in Kansas City’s urban sector, Ray witnessed countless fights and other acts of violence amongst his neighbors. These bouts of negativity, Ray said, took a toll on his family’s mental health, resulting in stages of depression from his father, uncle and grandfather.
“Every day they went through something,” Ray said. “My dad’s depression has really hit hard, and he’s still at a low-point in his life. Coming from that area made me realize that most of the people there don’t have anything going for them.”
After spending years surrounded by his family’s depression, Ray eventually went down the same path. His depression began in the summer of 2017, in the time between playing basketball at Bishop Miege High School in Overland Park and Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Ray said his depression stemmed from having very little interaction between friends. There were times when he sat in his bedroom alone for weeks on-end, contemplating his thoughts deeply.
“My depression never got to the point where I wanted to kill myself,” Ray said. “But it did make me think differently. I wanted to give up basketball.”
To seek comfort, Ray reached out to his mother, who was supporting a family of four mostly by herself. She gave him advice on how to treat and maintain his depression.
“She told me to do anything possible to get out of the state I was in,” Ray said. “My mom is a big factor in my life. She was the one who removed me and the rest of my immediate family from Kansas City into Overland Park.”
After sharing his story, Ray hopes his words allow other athletes to take care of their mental health and to be proud of admitting their feelings.
“I feel like the topic of mental health is something that not many people, mainly athletes, don’t want to talk about,” Ray said. “There are athletes who go throughout their everyday lives being sad and angry, and they don’t know why. They don’t know how to react. They need to learn what triggers them.”
Eloy Flores’ Battle with Anxiety
Ray’s mental health journey contrasts to men’s soccer player Eloy Flores. Despite not having experienced symptoms of depression in his athletic career so far, Flores does admit to battling with anxiety from time to time.
“I know the daily rigors of practices and games can wear on an athlete,” Flores said. “Anxiety and stress wear on me sometimes. I struggle with it on the field, in my classes. It definitely gets to me.”
A graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School, Flores said one of the ways he deals with his anxiety is simply talking it out with his coach, Fatai Ayoade. According to Flores, Ayoade keeps each of his players’ minds active during the season by ensuring they keep up with their studies through a log sheet, which tracks how many hours they spend on homework a night as well as how much time they spend alone.
“[Ayoade] does a great job of keeping us busy, managing our time and keeping our priorities straight,” Flores said. “He lets us all know that too much time to ourselves can lead to a bad mental state.”
In addition, Flores acknowledged that living in a safe environment surrounded by affectionate family members goes a long way in maintaining his mental health.
“Because I still live with my parents, I think they play a part in helping me stay on task,” Flores said. “They’re people I can talk to and express how I feel and how I act to.”
After learning from others, Flores hopes to teach current and future athletes about the effects of what living with an unhealthy mental state can lead to.
“I know a lot of us [athletes] can be seen as more stressed than others,” Flores said. “It’s all about knowing your body, inside and out.”
Coaches’ opinions on mental health
Mike Jeffers is currently embarking on his twenty-eighth season coaching men’s basketball at the college. Over the course of nearly three decades on the sidelines, he’s witnessed countless coaching turnovers, graduating players and shifts in the game. But if there’s one aspect of basketball that has taken years to come to light, it’s the emphasis of an athlete’s mental health.
“I’ve been coaching [basketball] for 41 years, and in the first 30 years this was a topic I guarantee no one talked about,” Jeffers said. “I would say mental health is more of an issue now than 10 or 15 years ago. [Because of this], I think more about my players’ mental health now than ever.”
Jeffers said the reason why he has devoted more time to his players’ mental health recently is because of the increased workload an athlete’s shoulders, on and off the court.
“It’s not just physical,” Jeffers said. “I don’t think most people realize the emotional commitment college players and college athletes go through in the season.”
Throughout his time at the college, Jeffers has seen his fair share of players shut down mentally, think about transferring, quitting or to the furthest extreme, taking their own life. He understands that there will be periods during the season where players may experience a “mental wall”; his goal is to help alleviate as much pressure or anxiety as he possibly can.
“A lot of emotional energy is spent throughout a game, throughout a season. I don’t want the players to be overwhelmed mentally,” Jeffers said.
One way he overcomes this battle is to log every one of his players’ hours, noting the players’ sleep patterns, time spent on homework, as well as an injury report.
“Before I even walk into practice, I have a general idea of where my team is physically, but, most importantly, mentally,” Jeffers said.
The values of family, continuity and connectedness carries over to Jennifer Ei’s coaching style, too. As the head women’s volleyball coach, she understands the importance of talking about mental health issues to her players.
“Just because you cannot visibly see mental health doesn’t mean it isn’t still there and can affect you even more than physical [issues],” Ei said.
“We talk to the players about signs of depression. I tell them, if your roommate is starting to sleep in, isolating themselves from the team and stopping doing what they enjoy, you need to talk to them. It’s not telling on them, but rather helping them get the help they need.”
To regulate her players’ anxiety and stress levels, Ei advises them to go through a series of breathing techniques and yoga stretches before and after practices and games.
“Having the responsibility of a team of women has definitely given me anxiety,” Ei said. “Many times, I feel like these are my kids and I want to help teach them how to deal with any stress they have accordingly.”
Warning Signs, Living Conditions, and Dealing with Failure
There are several warning signs an athlete might show to reveal what they’re dealing with mentally. The most common is withdrawal from the team or from family. Bratt said, “this can lead to sudden moods or actions that manifest themselves as out of character.” Physical temper is also another clue to keep an eye on; an example of this can be equipment thrown, or athletes expressing a shorter fuse than usual.
If no signs are apparent, however, then diagnosing a player’s mental state becomes harder. According to Jordan Bratt, adjunct Psychology professor, a player’s living condition can also help distinguish what a player is experiencing mentally.
“It’s not always simple, but to be in an environment that’s very positive, uplifting and helpful can help the situation of a person who is dealing with a mental health issue,” Bratt said. “On the other hand, a person who is in a negative environment can be pulled down.”
Dealing with failure, Jeffers said, is one final barrier that an athlete must overcome to attain a healthy mental state. Jeffers believes many athletes, primarily basketball players, struggle with accepting failure because they weren’t used to it in high school.
“A lot of these basketball players that are hitting the college level have never experienced failure, athletically, academically or socially, and they don’t know how to react,” Jeffers said.
“They don’t know how to go from a starting guard and average 20 points per game [in high school] to becoming a sub or a rotational player [in college]. To me, that definitely alters a player’s mindset.”
Bratt, on the other hand, believes that self-esteem is critical, and that learning how to deal with failure is a tricky skill to master.
“What I see with a lot of athletes is that their self-esteem is closely tied to their athletic performance,” Bratt said.
“Athletes have to learn how to accept failure and let it roll off their skin and keep moving forward. But doing that is a skill. Not every athlete is able to move on from failure. It can feel like a rut, like the sport you’re playing becomes redundant and that you’re witnessing failure, failure, failure. Sometimes changing your approach or routine helps re-engage your mindset.”