Purpose and Power Podcast: The Mental Game

The final episode of our mini podcasts series is out! This time we get personal as we talk about mental health.

Sports are tough, they take a toll on your body and on your mind. In this episode we talk about some of our personal experiences with the mental side of athletics, with our struggles. Emily Howard, Assistant Athletics Director for Academic Support at Monmouth University, joins the podcast to discuss her own experiences as a diver at Clemson University.

Nation Suicide Prevention 1-800-273-8255
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As a college tennis player, I have had my fair share of trials and tribulations with my mind. In fact, I cried to my mom earlier today. She said something that really stuck with me, she told me that what I was going through was nothing new to me. And although that my actually seem like a bad thing since that means that I have been struggling with my mind since I was about 10 years old, its not. It means that I have faced all of these thoughts and situations before, and have gotten through it.

Nevertheless, I want to share part of my story with all of you.

I decided to play college tennis after my junior high school season. My senior year, I committed to play Division I tennis at Monmouth University. I knew that it was going to be a lot harder than high school, but I was only thinking about what would happen on the court. Within the first two weeks of school, I called one of my coaches who is really just more of a best friend, crying. This was not what I had expected. School was the only thing that seemed to be going right. I wasn’t playing my game, the game that I was used to playing, and I would just get so upset with myself that I would cry on the court. My legs and arms would go numb. They turned to jell-o and I could barely hit the ball. My heart raced a mile a minute. And my head hurt all of the time.

Fast forward to the spring semester of the year, nothing much changed, but I decided to reach out for help. I made an appointment at my school’s Counseling and Psychological Services Center. I went to a few sessions the rest of the semester and thought I was cured, of whatever was going on in my head.

Fast forward again to the next spring semester. I had worked my butt off to get a higher spot on my team. I was doing early morning practices with my coach, and lifting more often than any of my teammates. The biggest thing that was different was my mind. I was ready for this challenge match. Or so I thought.

I lost the first set of the match, but remained calm. In the second game of the second set, I snapped. I whipped my racquet towards the ground. A massive pop echoed in the building. I picked up the racquet and snapped the unbroken side of the throat with my bare hands. I ran to my bag to grab another racquet and apologized to my opponent, who was also my teammate. I lost the match.

What I had done didn’t really hit me until the end of the match. I have never even thrown my racquet before, I had just snapped one completely in half out of frustration. I saw red out of anger. My coach told me that she wanted me to get help. I said “yes please.” I wasn’t really sad and played the whole thing off as a joke, having my teammates take a photo of me with the broken racquet so I could make (what I thought to be) a hilarious Instagram post.

I drove my teammates back to their dorms and stopped to get gas. At this point, my mind was racing. Then my coach called and my heart began to race too. I had to pull into a parking lot because I knew that I was going to cry. And I was right. The first thing my coach did was ask me where I was. Was I in a safe spot? She told me that she was worried about how I had left the tennis club. She was worried that I was going to do something to harm myself or worse. Whoa.

This hit me like a brick wall. Was I really struggling that much that it showed? My coach really thought that I would hurt myself because of a tennis match. Well, she was right. Because I had thought about it. If started as thoughts about quitting, transferring, or just driving home so that I would be in a familiar place again. So that I could be the coaches and teammates that I had been used to, so that I could be with my parents. *deep inhale and sob*

I thought about what would happen if I crashed my car into the barrier or hit another car head on. Would I live? What would it feel like to die? Who else would be impacted by my death?

But these were all thoughts that I had had dozens of times before. Even more whoa. If my coach could see that I was not okay, maybe I really wasn’t. The next week, I met with a counselor of also met with other athletes at my school. No one knew besides my coach and my parents. Not my assistant coach, not my teammates, not my roommates. And it got better. But it is also a continuous effort to get better.

I would love to say that I have it all figured out. But I don’t. And it will be a lifelong process and battle with my mind. But through this process I have learned that I am not alone. So many people, and so many athletes have experienced the same thing. I would cry reading about athletes who announced their own struggles with their mind. I cried because I could relate to them on some level, if not all levels. And I cried because I wanted everyone to read these articles or books. I wanted other people to know that it is okay to not be okay.

There is a stigma around mental health, but luckily, organizations and athletes that have a platform for change have begun to speak out about the topic. Be sure to check out the blog posts that correspond with this podcast: Mental Lapse and the Book Review of Kate Fagan’s What Made Maddy Run. Before the 2016 Olympic Games, American Swimmer Allison Schmitt talked about her struggles with depression and mental health in the ESPN article “Out of the Blue” (Ford 2016) . In 2017, Kate Fagan, and ESPN journalists published her book What Made Maddy Run. It tells the story of a college athletes struggle with mental health, what ultimately lead to her death (Fagan 2017). It is truly an inspiring read, and I encourage all of you to pick up a copy.

There are hotline numbers located in the description of this podcast for anyone who may need them.  And remember that you will get through this. Like my mom told me today, this one thing, this one aspect with our life that we may struggle with does not define us. We are so much more. There is so much more going on in our lives that we can celebrate. We will all get through this life together. We can break this stigma together.

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