Under greater stress, some athletes fight to stabilize mental health

by Gayne Kalustian | 10/8/15 9:36pm

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Athletes, who train at Floren Gymnasium, are often under additional stress.
by Tiffany Zhai / Tiffany Zhai/The Dartmouth Senior Staff

After enough swings, a baseball bat becomes an extension of the clean-up hitter’s arm. Skates define the way a defenseman relates to winter. Jerseys become identities franchise players wear day and night. The game the athlete plays becomes a fundamental part of who he is, and in many cases, that’s a good thing.

Tiffany Zhai

Athletes, who train at Floren Gymnasium, are often under additional stress.

Sports can teach teamwork and discipline while fostering a strong work ethic. But the pressure to constantly perform, to win and to be in peak physical and mental shape, can make the inseparability of athletic life from social and academic life cause for additional stress for an athlete — particularly one pursuing an Ivy League education. For an athlete struggling with mental health issues, it can make the balance impossible. Because for all the good things sports can give, they can take just as much.

Sports can determine what the athlete eats for breakfast, what she pursues as her major, whether or not he affiliates with a Greek organization, what time she wakes up in the morning, the amount of time he has to study for midterms, the amount of time she spends relaxing or, more appropriately, all the time she cannot afford to spend at rest. And most disturbingly, the culture in sports — demanding toughness in the face of adversity, focus amidst the chaos — can cause athletes to keep injuries and illnesses — mental or otherwise — to themselves.

“It is tough to talk to people about it. Some teammates are more receptive than others. It is hard because you don’t want to burden people with your problems,” Will Young ’17, a former heavyweight rower at the College, said after leaving the team at the end of this past summer.

Young, who struggled with depression on and off before coming to Dartmouth, fell into the same revolving cycle that many athletes face. His depression was triggered by stressful events in his life, causing his athletic performance to drop and, in turn, causing his depression to worsen and his athletic performance to worsen. Medication, he said, only numbed his experience, forcing him to go through the motions on the team without really enjoying what he was doing. He spoke to his head coach, who he said was understanding, but Young still felt alone.

“I always thought that everyone else was happier than I was with what was going on. But it’s hard to tell. Because again people don’t really tend to speak about it,” Young said.

While for some, like Young, the relationship between mental and physical health starts in the mind, for others, deteriorating physical health can be the catalyst for a wide array of mental health issues. Issa Sylla ’17, a recruited rugby player who had his eyes on the College since his sophomore year of high school, accepted admission into the College with Olympic rugby aspirations. The summer before matriculation, Sylla underwent a hip surgery that ended his fall season after fighting through injuries on his high school rugby team.

After that, the injuries just kept coming. His freshman fall he underwent a second hip surgery before splitting his knee open his freshman summer, losing both his freshman spring season and sophomore fall season. Sylla returned home for winter break, where he and a friend spent time looking over the articles posted about each other in anticipation for the start of their college careers. The pair stumbled upon an article with interviews from the Dartmouth rugby coaches, speaking about their anticipation for the arrival of the recruits -— Sylla and teammate Dawit Workie ’17.

“I just started crying,” Sylla said. “I started bawling. I felt so, so bad. I felt like a huge letdown. All these standards to hold up. I felt like the coaches had wasted all their time with me. I felt terrible.”

To compensate, Sylla came back to campus with a revitalized sense of purpose, striving to get back into the shape he was in when Dartmouth originally expressed interest. Putting his body under the stress of a rigorous workout plan after a long stretch of injuries, Sylla herniated a disc in his lower back, effectively ending his hopes at competing for a spot on the team in the upcoming spring. The defeat he felt after almost two years of non-competition, he said, came from many sources, including the feeling of not meeting the expectations set for him by his high school coaches, his home community, his college coaches and himself. But beyond that, losing the part of himself that had for so long determined who he was made him question who he would be going forward.

“I don’t know what to do. I can’t just be a student. I can’t not play rugby. I can’t not be an athlete,” Sylla said. “Even when I’m in the gym after I go back [following an injury] and I see people doing something I was able to do before my injury, I just think I’ll never be able to catch up. I’ll never be as good as I was before.”

Generally speaking, athletes are a healthy population, though they are exposed to additional stressors on top of the typical stressors a non-athlete would face in college, College clinical and sport psychologist Mark Hiatt said. The typical athlete might face issues around injuries, concussions, performance issues, the transition out of sports and disordered eating related to athlete physique and performance.

Dartmouth Peak Performance staff nutritionist Claudette Peck emphasized that athletes often come to her with gastrointestinal distress that can frequently be traced not to dietary culprits but underlying anxiety issues. In addition to digestive issues that cause physical pain, she sees athletes of both genders come in with issues related to binge-eating disorder, anorexia and bulimia.

“Often what I hear in my office is this concept of, ‘I want a body I can live in at Dartmouth when I go out but then I have to have my athletic body, and there’s conflict between those two bodies — the body I want to bring to the party at night and the body I have to show up with on the field the next day,’” Peck said.

Eating issues are statistically more centered around sports where weigh-ins are necessary or uniforms are tight and sometimes unflattering, Peck said. Sports that emphasize speed and lightness also can cause athletes to take extreme measures with their diets.

It has been known for some time that eating disorders exist in the athletic community, but the way the issues are framed is the real problem within the athletic community, former volleyball player Alex Schoenberger ’15 said.

“If you have someone on the team who has an eating disorder and is struggling to put on weight and to lift, that’s seen as a weakness. It’s mental, and as athletes you should be able to overcome mental things,” Schoenberger said. “Whereas, if you have someone in a knee brace with a torn ACL that just had surgery, that’s seen as a strength. That’s the biggest thing I think we need to tackle. I think it prevents people from getting help.”

Schoenberger, who dealt with anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder while playing for the Big Green, expressed dissatisfaction with the services available to her as she started to explore the resources she could access to help her manage her mental health. Having access to Dick’s House and psychologists like Hiatt might not always be beneficial for the athlete, though it is “well-intentioned” on the part of the athletic department, Schoenberger said. She emphasized that her remarks reflected her own personal experience. Treating mental health with respect to athletic performance and not exclusively with the sole concern of the health of the athlete can cover up serious underlying issues, she said.

“The biggest issue I’ve found is the lines blurred between generalized anxiety disorder and performance anxiety, which are two very different things with two very different underlying causes. They were kind of equated and that prevents in particular athletes who are told, ‘You need to be mentally tough. You need to be able to block this out. You need to be able to play through high pressure situations and your ability to do that is directly related to your performance as an athlete.’…It’s about getting your performance up and minimizing the impact it has on your sport,” Schoenberger said.

Hiatt said that he does not support the use of the terms “mental weakness” and “mental strength” to describe athletes’ mental states.

“I think it’s one thing to talk about how to play with confidence, how to bring confidence to your game, different skills and strategies to help with performance on the field, but it’s something different coping with real issues around anxiety and depression,” he said. “It’s not so much about mental strength as it is coping with major stress and illness sometimes. I think in talking about strength, managing things like depression in college and on campus takes a tremendous amount of strength.”

While some athletes like Schoenberger have had negative experiences with respect to their mental health, others -— the only two college athletes who gave interviews for this story while still currently being on the active rosters for their teams — have been recently making a point to improve the system from within. Andi Norman ’18 and Lakin Roland ’16 have started an initiative — still untitled — within the athletic department to shed light on the issue of mental health within the athletic community.

Norman, who struggled with depression her freshman year, eventually sought support from her team who received her honesty with open arms.

Norman’s depression catalyzed other members of the women’s basketball team to action, Roland said. The team attempted to help Norman through her struggle.

“On a team like ours, which is very intimate, I think that because she shared this part of herself we are all now more capable of sharing, especially with her, our feelings,” Roland said. “Even with day-to-day stuff with each other, she started this culture of us trusting each other. I can see now that our team is much more willing to get deep about other things outside of basketball.”

Norman and Roland, who have begun speaking to incoming freshmen and individual athletic teams, have used Norman’s story to destigmatize mental health and wellness in the athletic community. The pair sent out a survey at the end of the summer to athletes, and of those responded, almost half said they struggled with their own mental health, while 67 percent said they knew a teammate who was struggling with his or her mental health. The two, shocked by the prevalence of the issue within the community, resolved to make a difference in the lives of athletes at Dartmouth. Norman, whose story is posted on her blog, is hoping that her openness and honesty will encourage other athletes to come forward when they know they need help.

One of the pair’s newest initiatives, which has been supported by their own head coach Belle Koclanes, athletic director Harry Sheehy and Dartmouth Peak Performance director Drew Galbraith, is mandatory training for coaches so that they might be better prepared to identify potential mental health concerns on their own teams. Norman and Roland are hoping to begin the training as soon as this month.

The initiative marks am important step for athletes like Schoenberger, who said she raised the issue of mental health with her own coach. Her coach said that athletes have to come forward and ask for help when they need it. Though she agreed that self-advocacy can be important, Schoenberger still wanted more from her coaching staff.

“I also think that coaches need to take responsibility for the fact that they’re someone whose judgment and opinion means a lot, especially to an incoming freshman. And creating an environment that’s open about that and treats people as valuable and sees peoples’ weaknesses as things they can work on but also valid parts of who they are is vital to having people feel comfortable enough to speak up about it,” Schoenberger said.

About a quarter of the student body at Dartmouth is made up of varsity athletes who continue to play because — for some — the benefits outweigh the costs.

There certainly is a balance to be struck on the field that can make the failures that athletes face on a daily basis into more than disappointment — into moments that truly teach the athletes how to overcome challenges as they arise.

Schoenberger, too, agreed that while there are those who need professional help to overcome mental health issues, there is something to be said for those who truly need to learn to thrive in competitive environments.

The challenge facing the athletic community now, though, is identifying that difference and responding in a way that will ultimately privilege the health of the athlete over the drive for victory on the team.

And athletes, from day one, always need to be reminded that they are much more than a batting average, a plus/minus rating and the jersey they wear on their backs.