Before we start, I want to encourage every single one of you to keep reading. Even when it seems like this is just “another one of those articles” or it seems like it just doesn’t pertain to you. This topic is one that we must continue to talk about even when it is hard or doesn’t feel like it applies to us.
In the past six months, the mental health initiative throughout the athletic community, and pretty much the human community, has exploded. There is a mix of compassion and empathy as well as misunderstandings and negative attitudes. With this being said, the athletic community finds themselves in a polar divide as strong as the current state of political affairs. Many find themselves in the ideal of being the strong individual who only needs to rely on themselves or the “expressing how they feel is weakness.” This mindset has developed by generational transference through the athletic community. Passed down from mentor to mentee and the persona we place amongst athletes that they are indeed that – an athlete. They are the best of the best, the strongest of the strong, the greatest creation of human evolution. Survival of the fittest with the elite athlete being comprised of every human’s ideal form. Yet, at the end of the day, we forget one simple fact – they are human, just like me and you. We, as a human society misconstrued emotional strength for physical strength. Emotional strength is not the ability to handle everything on our own but instead the ability to understand what we can and cannot do by ourselves and the courage to ask for help when we cannot.
I want to pause here for a little anecdotal information. In my 22 years of life, I have found myself living most of it from the area in which I felt I did not need another individuals help, in anything. I felt that being strong meant keeping everything locked up and handling it myself, or in some cases, lock it up and throw away the key. When I got to college, this internal process of mine was exacerbated, even though the personal stressors were piling up between the school, softball and social aspects of my life. It was suggested by a coach and two close friends that I seek out our Behavioral Health Coordinator, Dr. Lee Dorpfeld, for a chat. I remember thinking, “HA, that will never happen. I don’t need a psychologist.” For the next two and a half years, he and I played, what he calls, a game of cat and mouse. I would come in one day and then disappear from his office for four to six months. I would see him around our athletic facility and we would always chat or have a conversation but I avoided his portion of the facility with the same determination as a softball player attempting to avoid a slump. (You can see where this is heading.) Now, I am probably one of the slowest shortstops to ever have played Division I softball. It was joked that if you wanted to make me run fast, just put Dr. Lee at the opposite place you wanted me to run. You see, I fell into the misconception that we all have – the “ist” phenomena. Psychologist, dermatologist, orthodontist, therapist, etc. We often feel that professions ending in “ist” are all related to fixing someone.
It wasn’t until I sustained the first of my two major injuries that I started going to talk to Dr. Lee on a more “consistent” basis (I place the quotations because it wasn’t really that consistent but it was more often than four to six months). I began to realize how much less stressed I was because I had someone to talk through my stressors, uncomforts, and fears relating to my injury process. Slowly and surely that started to transition into topics regarding graduate school and relationships with others. My natural tendencies to “lock up” into self-protection mode slowly began to dissipate. I was starting to have real relationships and great friendships with people who mean a lot to me. My ability on the field finally came to full fruition as well. I was able to remain focused and locked in. Simply put, I felt lighter in everything I tried to do. No, sadly I did not get physically faster by releasing these personal loads but I was mentally faster. Understand this, I didn’t have to be “fixed” or wasn’t diagnosed with a condition as everyone fears. But, I found a safe place to be vulnerable and release myself from unnecessary stress.
Start By Changing Your Definition
You see, the ability to open up and discuss what is on your mind, whether good or bad, is “strength.” It is the understanding that we all need that person to talk to. Often, we lock athletes into this bubble that places them on a pedestal above the standards of the normal human. In actuality, their competitive profession places them in an area of high stress and personal demands. We need to re-educate the athletic community, starting with the youth athlete all the way to the professional, that asking for help or admitting your stressed isn’t weakness, it IS strength.
I’d like to emphasize another point – this doesn’t have to happen with a psychologist. It can be a friend, a coach or teammate, a mentor – anyone who you feel comfortable expressing yourself too. If you are fearful of the “ist” phenomena then I encourage you to find someone in your circle. It can be powerful to hear that someone feels the same as you, that you are not alone, as we most often are not. I look to another personal example that occurred with one of my closest friends.
Honestly, it happens quite frequently between the two of us so I cannot remember the context of the first one specifically but it went as most of them do. I was feeling quite overwhelmed with something softball wise and I blurted out during dinner, “can I ask you something?” She responded with “oh boy,” as she’s come to associate that question with something of grand context. I stated my point, as normally is not a question but a statement, to which she responded, “Cass, I feel the exact same way and I haven’t told anyone either.” It was a moment of mutual appreciation and understanding, as we both finally felt legitimized in our thinking. Now, I am not saying that this is always going to happen. Sometimes, you are going to open up and someone won’t feel the same way or understand it. That does not mean you hunker down and lock up – as with anything like athletics, there is going to be “failure.” But I want to reframe this thought as well; opening up and having someone not understand or feel the same isn’t a failure – it is just the process of human connection. Not one person is going to have the same sequence of events in their life as you but they will have general experiences similar to you; it is in this that the bond is created. We might not have the same exact feelings, but they will be close and possible to relate to – that is where you must find the comfort.
Why Athletes Warehouse
Athletes Warehouse is a prime example of changing this part of the athletic culture. We strive to challenge our athletes from a physical and mental perspective. We often incorporate mental skills training into most of our classes and large groups as we deem it as important as the physical skill set we can provide. We thrive on relatability – as all of our staff consists of former collegiate athletes which is effective as I find there is a slight difference in the natural tendencies of an athlete. We strive to create a safe environment for our athletes to challenge themselves and test their limits. We encourage open communication and discussion amongst staff and through the coach-athlete relationship.
I encourage any athlete, coach, or head of an organization reading this to let this message sink in. We are all human, so why don’t we allow athletes to act like it? Change doesn’t occur overnight. It takes one person impacting another and then another and this cycling continuing over and over to perpetuate change.
Let’s start now,