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One coach’s X and O: pay attention, give permission

Newman coach spreads message that it’s OK to seek help for depression.

By Mark Potter

NOTE: This story is excerpted from the Sports Science Institute’s soon-to-be released book, “Mind Body and Sport – Understanding and Supporting Student-Athlete Mental Wellness,” a comprehensive look at the student-athlete experience from a mental health perspective – from their relationships with faculty, peers, administrators, coaches and fans. The book will be released on NCAA.org and Amazon.com in late September.

Mark Potter

I am an advocate for helping student-athletes with mental health issues because I’ve gone through it myself.

In 2005 – 19 years into my coaching career – I came to grips with depression after masking it for years. I denied the signs because I was embarrassed and ashamed of not being able to cope with what I thought should be normal. I thought only people “who couldn’t handle life” were depressed.

As it turned out, I was diagnosed with a chemical imbalance, as is the case for so many others who suffer symptoms of depression and anxiety.

But because I’ve experienced it firsthand, and because I know the tendency to hide the stigma of what others might regard as being “abnormal” or “crazy,” I have taken my message to the streets that it’s OK to seek help. I speak regularly to youth groups, high school kids, church groups – anyone I can find who needs to know that depression and anxiety aren’t so abnormal after all.

There are so many stressors on the college athlete, that we as coaches tend to overlook them and expect the kids to be mentally tough and “suck it up.” And the hardest part for anyone who hasn’t gone through it themselves is to recognize it in others. Most coaches haven’t been educated enough to help in that area, or they haven’t been educated about the resources available on campus so they can direct the student-athlete to get the help he or she needs.

What you need to look for are signals such as changes in behavior – even subtle ones – that indicate the student-athlete may be struggling with more than just time management or acclimating to college life.

One sign in particular is that so many people with a mental health issue will try to self-medicate rather than address the root issue – when you start seeing that or hearing things their peers say, consider that as a sign of a deeper problem. If they’re using alcohol or drugs, why are they using it? Coaches are usually the last to know. Try to notice strange or different behaviors and pay attention to what is happening.

Because I am now so open about my condition, other Newman coaches have used me as a first reference when dealing with their own student-athletes who show signs of struggling, and that’s OK. I talked with one student-athlete for more than an hour and made him promise two things – that he’d see a doctor, and that he’d do exactly as the doctor ordered.

Much later, we had a chance encounter on campus. I asked the young man how he was doing. And he knew it was more than the casual “how’re you doing?” people tend to exchange as small talk.

The student-athlete told me he had gotten the help I advised and was “doing fine.” It was a short conversation, but enough to convince me that the young man had gone in the right direction.

A short time after that, my AD called me into the office without telling me why. And as a coach you’re always a little nervous when that happens. But when I came in, this young man was with the AD, and the AD said he had something he wanted to show me. Well, it turns out that he was an artist, and he had done a painting of me as a way to show his gratitude.

That painting – which hangs in my office above my desk to this day – is the most precious thing I’ve received from anyone because it is a daily reminder of how important help is for people suffering with depression or anxiety or any other mental health issue. That young man just graduated in May and is getting on with his life now. I can’t tell you how rewarding that feels.

I have dozens of other stories like that, too. After almost every group session I conduct, a handful of people will come up afterward saying how liberating the message was. And there likely are more who feel the same way but aren’t ready to disclose it – but perhaps they will later on their own once the message sinks in. And that message is that it’s OK to get help. In most cases, the person suffering from the issue just needs permission to go get help.

It certainly was a permission thing for me. Here I was 19 years into my coaching career, and you’re telling me I have a mental health issue and can’t deal with my daily life? Are you kidding? I mean that’s not easy to handle. That internal turmoil of – gosh, what if people find out I can’t handle my daily life? But my getting help allowed me to get back to my normal self, and because of the medication I have not been back to the “other” self now for nine years.

Athletes are conditioned to not let anyone know if they’re struggling, and sometimes we as coaches – perhaps even unknowingly – fortify that behavior because we’re trying to build character and mental toughness in game situations.

But coaches should also be aware of what the players are encountering from all directions and be sensitive to situations in which they may find all of it difficult to manage.

Coaches who have not gone through some type of mental health issue themselves will probably find it difficult to understand what it is. Before I went through it, I might not have recognized it myself. But if you see your players’ behavior start to change, don’t assume it’s just something they can “shake off” by being tough.

It’s OK to talk about these things. In fact, that’s where the “mental toughness” comes in. That permission to talk it through and to get help will do more for their mental toughness than any practice or drill.

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Mark Potter is in his 16th year as Newman University’s head men’s basketball coach, where he has compiled an overall record of 281-163. Mark led the Jets to their best season during the 2012-13 season when Newman earned its first bid to the Division II tournament and finished the season with a 20-8 record. Mark was named Heartland Conference Coach of the Year and the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission Coach of the Year. A former Newman player and assistant coach, Mark has compiled the highest winning percentage in Newman basketball history. Mark also has been on a mission now for nine years to get the word out about depression. He went through severe depression nine years ago and missed eight games and 25 practices while recovering from the disease. Since that time, Mark has been working to spread the word through speaking engagements, and letting people know the importance of getting help. You can contact Mark at potterm@newmanu.edu.