Over the summer, the topic of sports and mental health was widely discussed following two star athletes’ decisions to step away from the biggest competitions in their respective sports.
In June, Naomi Osaka, the world’s No. 2-ranked women’s tennis player, withdrew from Wimbledon. A little more than a month later, American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from multiple events at the Tokyo Olympics. Both athletes stepped away, citing a need to focus on their mental health and wellness as the reason. With the fall sports season underway at St. Joseph’s University, student-athletes there are still being influenced by Osaka’s and Biles’s decisions.
Osaka and Biles were the latest professional athletes to bring mental health, anxiety and depression to the fore. Others such as Kevin Love, Dak Prescott, and Michael Phelps have also spoken out, sharing personal experiences with these topics in recent years. At a moment when the world as a whole is having a mental-health conversation, particularly in the age of COVID-19, the more athletes and public figures who open up about their struggles, the less lonely many feel.
“These people have dedicated years and years to their craft just to get to this moment where they can really showcase and be considered one of the greatest of all time,” said Alex Hood, a senior midfielder for the St. Joe’s men’s soccer team. “To say, ‘I’m not ready to do that,’ really takes an extreme amount of courage.”
Hood is co-president of Hawks-Minded, a peer support group for athletes facing mental-health issues. It was founded in 2019 by former Hawks track athlete Caroline Duffy.
Currently, Hawks-Minded has eight members in its leadership committee, and the group holds monthly meetings with other athletes. At the meetings, the group has check-ins and shares information regarding resources such as on-campus sports psychologists.
The purpose of the group is to provide a safe space for student-athletes to discuss the various challenges that they might face during their collegiate careers. As a peer support group, it can also make some student-athletes feel more comfortable sharing their own experiences and struggles, and connect them with people who might have similar experiences.
“Along with school, one of our main focuses in life is playing sports for the university,” Hood said. “If you’re not playing well, going through an injury, or if something’s happening outside your sport, all of that affects you. It’s important to look deeper into how those things affect our student-athlete community.”
St. Joe’s senior cross-country runner Gabriella Bamford says that it’s important to start a conversation and educate people who don’t understand the impact that mental health plays in athletes’ lives.
“From an outside perspective, I think it’s really easy to say, ‘Her mind wasn’t in it, you can work through that’ [but] not everybody can,” said Bamford. “There’s often more to the story and I think people need to recognize that we don’t put our whole lives on the field for everyone.”
Osaka’s and Biles’s decisions reverberated with Hood.
“It really made me look inside and think, ‘Would I be able to acknowledge that I’m not in a space to do the thing that I’ve trained my whole life for and really love to do?’” Hood said. “It also makes you think about the depth of what they must be going through.”
Bamford, who runs social media for Hawks-Minded, says that advocating for student-athletes’ mental health is important to her because she doesn’t want anyone to feel alone.
“I first got an injury at the end of my freshman year, and if you’re not able to train or work with your team it can feel very isolating,” Bamford said. “Sometimes people can think, ‘I’m the only one that feels this way,’ or they try to downplay what they’re going through as not a big deal. But it is a big deal, and we have people on campus that care and want to listen.”
Briana Baier, a senior track athlete who is a Hawks-Minded co-president, says that while she commended the bravery demonstrated by Osaka and Biles, she understood why some people were confused at their decisions.
“We look up to these athletes and we put them on this pedestal where we expect them to compete all the time,” Baier said. “Being able to recognize that issues of mental health such as high-performance stress, anxiety, and depression don’t stop at the collegiate level; they reach upward and affect every athlete.”
Any college student might face stress and anxiety from managing a heavy workload, but for a student-athlete, practices and games can only intensify that pressure.
“Take a 40-hour work week and double that,” Bamford said. “I would imagine it being close to working two full-time jobs at the exact same time and trying to balance everything. We still have to be involved in things outside of sports because you want to work on your resume and you want to go to potential employers, so there’s a lot that goes into it.”
Baier believes the decisions of Osaka and Biles will only leave a positive impact on athletes in the future.
“Destigmatizing struggling in those moments will not only help people step forward, but have them ask for help or seek out resources to try to understand what they’re struggling with before it gets to a place where it’s detrimental to who they are as a person,” Baier said.
“Having these conversations and making sure you don’t feel alone, or your fellow athlete doesn’t feel alone, will have a huge impact on athletics in general.”