Athletes battle more than just physical injuries

March 14, 2016

Two athletes missed practice last week.

Upon return, one wore a cast.
The other, wore no cast. From the outside, nothing appeared wrong, but on the inside, he is fighting a battle with himself just as debilitating as a physical injury. He is suffering from a mental illness.

Senior football and rugby player, Nathan Vanzee, has battled depression since his sophomore year.

“It’s difficult,” Vanzee said. “Having a mental illness is just as bad as having a physical illness, except it’s worse in a lot of ways because you’re the only one who sees it. So a lot of people don’t understand what you are going through. People might think you are just missing practice and school because you don’t want to go and that’s really not the case.”

One in five high school students suffer from a mental illness. According to sport psychology coach, Dr. Jason Novetsky of the Champion Mindset group in Birmingham, Michigan, poor mental health can have a number of effects on an athlete.

“There are many manifestations that mental illness can demonstrate on the playing field,” Dr. Novetsky said. “Often times athletes in this situation are irritable, moody, lack energy and focus. They may skip practices, arrive late, speak negatively to teammates, argue with coaches and officials and have demonstrative tantrums when things do not go their way.”

Scott Przystas, who coaches cross-country, basketball and track, has seen first hand the detrimental effects of mental illness in athletes.

“When athletes who struggle come to practice, they can get down on themselves,” Przystas, who is in his eighth year teaching and graduated with a masters for P12 administration and sport coaching education, said. “One bad thing, one mistake, can set the tone for themselves the rest of the game. It’s hard for them to come back from that if they don’t have mental toughness.”

Vanzee has experienced this.

“It becomes a lot more difficult to get out of bed in the morning,” Vanzee said. “It seems that every little thing that doesn’t go your way just becomes a big thing. Those little things stack up and you get overwhelmed and it feels like the world is on your shoulder.”

Suffering from a mental illness can damage the athlete’s ability to prepare, sustain their focus, and their ability to recover from adversity.

“The successful athletes are the best prepared, focused during competition and able to quickly recover to bring themselves back to the moment,” Novetsky said. “When an athlete is plagued with poor mental health their ability to do those things are significantly compromised and thus their play suffers. Depression can also affect the physical health of the athlete as those suffering from depression often do not eat or sleep well which can impact performance as well.”

A key component to moving forward will be to de-stigmatize mental health issues so that athletes will accept help, too.

“This is a difficult situation,” Novetsky said. “Often times athletes are too proud and will not ask for help which is exactly what they must do. They should reach out to family, friends, coaches, teachers, clergy and professionals that understand their situation. It is very difficult for any person when suffering from a mental illness to solve the problems themselves.”

According to Vanzee, communication is a major key for athletes who suffer.

“Talk to your coaches and close teammates,” Vanzee said. “You don’t have to let everyone know that you are going through it, but find a close group of people and be honest and do not isolate yourself, isolating yourself only makes it worse.”

Coaches strive to improve their athletes physically through conditioning, drills and education on injuries and nutrition. But with the increase in awareness of mental health issues, athletes need to understand that they are not immune to these.

Przystas emphasizes the importance of mental toughness.

“It’s big and I think it is getting bigger,” Przystas said. “Coaches need to be educated to prepare kid’s minds. There’s only so many running workouts you can do, only so many basketball workouts you can do. It’s time to start coaching athletes mental toughness too.”

Everybody deals with pressure and mental health issues, but athletes have more experience and are better equipped to handle the stress thrown at them.

“I believe the difference relates to the pressure athletes may be under or the perceived pressure they may be under,” Novetsky said. ”Often times it is the athlete themselves who creates the pressure. Sometimes the pressure comes from a coach or a parent.”

Novetsky believes that sports can help some deal with poor mental health.

“If surrounded by supportive teammates and coaches, being involved in a structured activity and being around others can often help someone that is suffering,” Novetsky said. “Being relied upon can help give a person a sense of purpose and sense of worth in their life. By doing things for others and being in a situation of cooperation often alleviates some negative feelings a person may be experiencing.”

Vanzee agrees that sports have not been a hindrance or cause to his mental health.

“For the most part I felt that playing sports helped quite a bit, staying busy,” Vanzee said. “It can get overwhelming at some points, but overall it’s good. To have a group of people that you kind of belong to, that depend on you.”

One way Przystas is working to build his athletes mental toughness is through positive self-talk.

“It is having some word that is your go-to word or phrase that is your comfort zone,” Przystas said. “You go to it when things get uncomfortable, telling yourself that ‘it’s okay, I can do this’ and it is not letting negative thoughts intrude and focusing on the task at hand.”

Novetsky believes that avoiding mental traps will lead to stronger mental health.

“Athletes and non athletes also often fall into mental traps and focus on things they cannot control whether on the playing field or in life,” Novetsky said. “We all need to keep things in perspective and focus on the controllables in our lives.”

Mental illness is not limited to athletes and the problem does not stop on the field.

“It can affect anybody at any point in their lives,” Vanzee said. “People just don’t take it as seriously as they should. I wish people were more open minded and educate themselves on them. Sometimes it affect the people you least expect.”

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