Igniting conversation about athletes’ mental health: ‘it’s OK not to be OK’

Updated: Sep 20

Simone Biles said ‘no’ at the Tokyo Olympics.

Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open.

Kevin Love left the NBA court mid-game.

In leaving the game, they shook the sports world, and media outlets ravenously sought an explanation. Athletes are relied on for their strength and skill; they’re not supposed to throw in the towel.

So why did these athletes take a step back from the sports they love?

The answers: because of stress and the demand to perform. Because of social anxiety and depression. Because of panic attacks.

And they are not alone in the high-pressure world of sports. As many as one in three pros suffer from mental health crises, which can manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression or anxiety, according to Athletes for Hope.

What Biles, Osaka and Love showed athletes all over the world is that it’s OK to not be OK, to prioritize mental health over the game, to sometimes quit.

“When you have big stars step up and say something that creates change,” said mental game coach and author Tami Matheny who works with the Belmont women’s soccer team.

But it’s not just the pros who face these obstacles.

College-aged student-athletes struggle with mental illness too, and some experts call the 30% rate an epidemic.

At Belmont, there are over 250 Division I student-athletes across the university’s 15 athletics teams. And despite on-campus initiatives like the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee’s mental health week, the stigmas surrounding athletes’ mental health needs to be further dismantled, Belmont women’s soccer player Morgan Pettit said.

For college players like her, upholding the image of a resilient athlete, toughing it out on bad days to the point of exhaustion, avoiding weakness at all cost — it’s simply a part of the never-ending grind.

After struggling with the aftermath of limited playing time, a season-ending injury and the COVID-19 send-home party, Pettit started questioning her value as a player and a person.

“It was a big identity crisis,” she said.

“You’re so tied to your sport and we put so much of our time. Our lives are completely centered around it, so when you’re not really seeing or getting what you want out of it in terms of on-the-field performance, it’s like am I even a college athlete?”

“Am I good enough?”

It’s a question that many athletes find themselves facing, and for many at Belmont, faith is the answer.

Like men’s basketball player Tate Pierson, who said leaning into his Christian identity provided the mental relief needed from the game.

Like men’s golfer Evan Davis, who said trusting in God and His timing helped him reach the highs of his college career.

The adversity and doubt athletes face can come from anywhere: a missed putt on the green, a bungled 3-pointer on the court, a bitter tournament loss or a game-changing injury. 

But there is peace in knowing things will get better, Davis said.

“Sometimes storms strengthen us. They always should,” the golfer said.

As Belmont’s athletes often say, “a storm’s a-Bruin.” But for many, dark clouds can start gathering as early as freshman year.

Transitioning out of high school and into college life can be stressful for just about anyone, with students facing homesickness, social reset and new responsibilities.

But for the baby Bruins in athletics, it is not only the pace of everyday life that changes; the pace of their game ratchets up level too.

“It takes every ounce of energy out of you to perform at this level,” said women’s basketballer Conley Chinn.

As training becomes more intense and the season rolls around, the stress of keeping up with classes and facing high expectations of both professors and coaches can send athletes right down the mental health drain.

And for international student-athletes, there are still other obstacles.

Culture clashes, language barriers, living time zones away from family: international student-athletes can find themselves in a vulnerable position, women’s golf coach and English citizen Olivia Jordan said.

“It’s a lot harder for them to be understood,” Jordan said.

With the complications of communication, feelings and thoughts can be lost in translation and, like for any human being, feeling misunderstood can fire up internal conflict.

It is the voice inside your head insisting you’re not good enough, questioning your capabilities and wondering how on earth you thought you could bring something to the team. Hate to break it to you, but that voice is wrong.

Working against this kind of negative self-talk can improve many athletes’ well-being, men’s soccer player John Bannec said.

Bannec is a senior transfer going into sports psychology upon graduation. He intends to use his own mental health journey to help other athletes become the best they can be by unlearning destructive habits and thinking patterns.

No. 5 John Bannec on his way to join the men’s soccer team in continued celebration of the home win over Georgia State, Sep. 10. Belmont Vision / Jessica Mattsson.

Instead of shaking your head because a pass wasn’t perfect, nod to reinforce what went well, or let it go and focus on the next thing. Wisdom can come out of any situation — This Is Good, teaches mental coach Matheny.

Bannec also said reaching for growth through adversity is a driving force in his game.

“I think no matter who you are or how mentally stable you are, you can always get even just that 1% better,” Bannec said.

That’s always the goal: to get better, whether you’re facing challenges out on the court or within your own body and mind.

Through the hardships, a lot of athletes lean on their teammates as a resource, many of whom are going through the same things.

“I try not to let my mind go to that low place of where my body doesn’t feel great. And the guys on the team help the most in that aspect,” baseball player Jack Capobianco said.

“They make any physical impact we go through doable.”

Capobianco is an only son and considers his teammates the brothers he never had, he said. And just like family members do, some of them showed up at his father’s funeral in Capobianco’s hometown of London, Kentucky.

Capobianco’s dad passed away after fighting stage 4 liver cancer during the infielder’s first year at Belmont. As the only male figure in the family, the college freshman became his mom and sisters’ rock.

Following a difficult period of bottling up his grief, he finally fell into a safety net of trustworthy friends and family after sharing his internal struggle.

“That helped me so much, getting it out,” Capobianco said. “Because once you get it out, you gotta deal with it.”

Mental coach Matheny encourages athletes to do just that — to share — and for coaches and administrators to build an open, safe and trusting environment for athletes to do so, she said.

Chinn seconded the importance of getting your thoughts and feelings out of your head and into the world.

When Chinn feels loneliness creeping in, she finds comfort in having conversations about body image issues, negative self-talk and other hurdles she’s struggling with.

“I can say some pretty mean things to myself,” she said. “That’s the worst feeling, just feeling alone and that nobody understands. But I’ve found that whenever I simply just talk about it, I realize I’m not alone.”

In her mission to break the stigma surrounding mental health issues, she has become a Hidden Opponent campus captain alongside softball player Audrey Lyle.

The Hidden Opponent is a non-profit organization with a mission of raising awareness about student-athlete mental health and — just like Biles, Osaka and Love — break stigmas that keep healing conversations from flowing.

For Lyle, being able to face her hurdles honestly was the start of big change.

“For a long time, I feel like I tried to push off anything that I was struggling with mentally. I would just say that I’m stronger than that or that that’s not a valid thing to be going through,” Lyle said.

Once she realized that struggling doesn’t mean weakness, the healing could begin.

Now Lyle recognizes when she’s being a “jerk” to herself and establishes habits to work against the harmful thoughts that so easily slip through after a failure.

Lyle is breaking the stigma for herself and for others by talking about her experiences, and other advocates at the Hidden Opponent are doing the same by sharing their stories.

There are resources and techniques available for handling the lack of confidence, overwhelming comparisons, the pressure of expectations, the heavy focus on short-term results, the pain and everything else that might seem unmanageable.

Sometimes though, taking a step back from your sport is the only option. And that’s OK.

For former Belmont volleyball player Faith Cobaugh, taking college athletics off her plate brought much-needed relief, even though it was a tough decision to make.

Coming to the team in 2018, Cobaugh worked her ass off, she said, to prove worthy of a scholarship, but the sport compromised her college experience. She decided to give up the No. 2 Bruins jersey after two seasons of gouged grades and playing without a return on her overwhelming time investment.

It ended up being the right choice for her.

“It’s really only bittersweet when I see my friends playing,” Cobaugh said. “If my passion for the game and my love for this team could have kept me there, I would have never left, but there was just so many outside factors that I wasn’t willing to mess around with,” she said. 

“I think it’s hard for any athlete to walk away from their sport, but the opportunities and the time and all the things I’ve gotten since having all that time back from volleyball … I walked away knowing I did everything I possibly could have to prove myself,” she said.

“I was happy and proud of myself for doing that.”

And when it was time to lift that heavy weight off her shoulders by telling her teammates, they assured her of their unconditional love — once a Bruin, always a Bruin.

Faith Cobaugh supporting the Bruins at men’s soccer’s Georgia State on Sep. 10, about a year after she stepped back from volleyball. Belmont Vision / Jessica Mattsson.

College athletics are not a dance on roses. They’re a balancing act between pushing yourself too hard or not enough, between prioritizing yourself or your team, between being a student and being an athlete.

Sometimes it becomes too much to handle, and that’s OK too.

Like Biles, Osaka and Love, choose your fights. Sometimes that fight is on the field, court, track, pitch, course or completely out of play, and sometimes it is with yourself.

Dare to be vulnerable and lean on your Bruins.

From one student-athlete to another, you are not alone.

“It’s OK not to be OK,” Capobianco said.

“It is OK not to be OK,” Chinn said.

“It’s OK not to be OK,” Matheny said.

“It’s OK to not be OK,” Pettit said.

___

A list of mental health resources for Belmont’s student-athletes is linked here.

PHOTO: Morgan Pettit (center) on the sideline during the 2021-22 OVC Championship quarterfinal. Belmont Vision / Jessica Mattsson.


This article was written by Jessica Mattsson. Mattsson is an international student-athlete on Belmont’s track and field team.

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