Tackling mental health’s greatest opponent


Maddi Shinall

Luke Stefan `25.5 has made the difficult decision to step away from competing in order to prioritize his mental health.

Luke Stefan

The “athlete mentality” is one of the oddest phenomena in the world of mental health. We are taught that if it does not hurt, you are not working out the right muscle. If you’re not tired, you’re not working hard enough, and if you don’t get it, you’re probably not thinking the right way. Watch the film again, replay the match in your head and ruthlessly check the stats sheet because no matter what angle you take, even though you want to blame the referees, bad coaching or unpredictable weather, you know deep down that failure will almost always find its way back to you. Yet on the other end of the spectrum, the moment we sustain the smallest of injuries, it’s often an immediate walk to the training room. We find ways to tape the injury, stretch the muscle so it doesn’t pull or even sit out for weeks so the condition doesn’t worsen. If we place such concern over the health and preservation of our bodies come game day, why is it so difficult for us to apply the same principle of preservation to our mental health?

I understand this sentiment is not generalizable for all sports, but it’s something that I feel needs to be said — as athletes, just like we do with physical injuries, we need to know when we reach the point when poor mental health is inhibiting our ability to compete, or perhaps more importantly, when competition is inhibiting our ability to live a normal life. In the same way you decide not to do the last rep because your hamstring feels too tight, we need to build a culture that proactively encourages taking breaks and seeking out resources.

From baseball in first grade to football and track in college, I’ve played sports all my life. Growing up, my parents encouraged me to play sports for as many seasons as I could, which, to their credit, helped me develop in many ways, but also ingrained in me this abstract and indescribable commitment to sports. I carried this into Grinnell, forcing myself to play football all fall and then run track from winter to spring. I distinctly remember one day during track practice in the late indoor season where the workout was fairly easy, but I had this incredibly heavy mental block. Sure, the thought of leaving was racing through my head, but it felt like there was this 80-foot wall between me and the 100-yard walk to the locker room. But this wall wasn’t a fear of upsetting my coaches nor was it letting down my teammates –– track is mostly an individual sport, after all –– it was this hypothetical barrier that, in reality, was only held up by myself. By the time I did leave, my coaches happily agreed to let me go, but it still felt like I was doing something wrong. It just seemed ironic, because there were countless times in the football season when I had heeded the trainer’s advice for lingering pain in my hamstring just to take the day off, but suddenly when my mind was involved, I refused to take the same precautions.

Just like we do with physical injuries, we need to know when we reach the point when poor mental health is inhibiting our ability to compete, or perhaps more importantly, when competition is inhibiting our ability to live a normal life.

I don’t say this to exclusively complain — the spirit of competition has helped me persevere through some of the toughest parts of my life, built unbreakable bonds and forged unforgettable memories. I love my sport — it has served as a haven from tough times and an outlet for wordless emotions, but the mental toll is undeniable. Athletes at the professional level like Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Kevin Love are beginning to speak more about mental health, but this culture change needs to be encouraged by athletes at every level. In other words, while I believe this is a shared commitment to change, the most important people who need to realize this culture change are not fans, coaches, trainers or families. It’s us as athletes.

However, many of the individuals that are speaking out tend to not only subtract agency from athletes but cite suicide as the chief indicator of mental health problems. First and foremost, suicide is not an accurate determinant of mental health. If we define athlete mental health primarily by struggling with suicidal ideations, we substantially limit the validity of individuals battling a plethora of other mental health struggles like depression, anxiety, post traumatic stress disorder and mood disorders, among so many others. Secondly, we need to promote the agency that athletes have when fighting their own mental health problems. Mental health struggles often are invisible. For teams over 50 players, it is completely unreasonable to hold coaches accountable to measure an athlete’s ability to compete based on mental health status. Additionally, as a generation that discourages the stigmatization of mental health struggles, we cannot place the responsibility for removing these pressures on coaches and parents who were raised in a different world.

That is not to say that this is an easy task. Speaking out about your mental health struggles can often be extremely challenging, especially if you participate in a sport where taking a break is seen as a weakness. Convincing yourself that you shouldn’t practice because you fractured your foot, for example, is significantly easier than reminding yourself that you haven’t been able to complete assignments because getting out of bed has been exceedingly challenging lately. Additionally, it is much more difficult to watch your teammates continue to practice when you’re suffering a “mental injury” as opposed to a physical one. Overcoming personal history, social stigmas and external stress is an uphill battle, but I believe by setting the standard now, we as a generation can begin to create change.

I want to emphasize that I am not in any way saying this is a battle you should take on alone. While I suggest that athletes enable ourselves as a collective to fight against stigmas and pressures, I encourage individual athletes to pursue resources and relationships that foster growth and help share those mental burdens. But most importantly, remind yourself sometimes that it’s okay to not be okay. Getting out of bed when you’re fighting a depressive episode can be a tough challenge for many people, and that challenge only becomes larger when you must maintain a certain weight, earn a certain GPA, make a certain amount of money and perform a certain way, athletically, just to keep your spot on the roster.

To encourage this change, I suggest two things. First, seek out resources so that you can take care of yourself before these battles begin, while these battles happen and even after you think they might be over. In the same way one preventatively stretches against shin splints in track, one should also go to therapy or find an outlet or space where they can cope with these feelings. I cannot begin to emphasize enough the importance of seeking out help, even if you think the problem will go away eventually. Secondly, check on your friends, especially the friends that check on you. Just because someone doesn’t seem like they need to be checked on doesn’t mean they don’t need to be checked on. However, checking on your friends doesn’t always look like saying, “How’s it going?” in D-Hall. Find and create spaces where you can genuinely ensure that your friends and teammates aren’t fighting their battles alone. 

Conversely, be honest with your friends when they ask you these questions. Personally, this is the hardest part because whenever a friend asks me how I’m doing, I’ll immediately say I’m ‘good’ or ‘okay’ because I feel that I’m too busy to actually talk about my problems. But I promise you, no matter how busy your schedule is, no matter how worried you may be about whatever the future holds, you always have enough time to check in on those close to you, and those close to you always have enough time to check in on you. Please check in on your friends, and even more importantly, confide in those who care because those minutes we decided not to give can turn into a lifetime of regret.