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Student-athletes, coach reflect on mental health challenges

Pandemic year brought struggles but also forged connections and opened conversation on mental wellness

Mary Murray began the pandemic as a pitcher for Arcadia. She’s now ending it as a coach for Rowan. (Photo by Arcadia University)

This past year has been like no other in college sports. Mental health concerns were exacerbated by a pandemic that minimized socialization, canceled seasons and championships, and moved classes online for many. It was also a year of heightened racial and political tensions.

As the school year comes to a close during Mental Health Awareness Month, college athletes and coaches are reflecting on the challenges they have faced and the mental health struggles student-athletes are coping with today.

Coming off a junior year filled with accolades such as Middle Atlantic Conference Commonwealth pitcher of the year and first team all-region, Mary Murray headed into her senior year of softball at Arcadia knowing it was her last chance to be named an All-American. What she didn’t know was that her senior year home opener would be her final game.

“We were actually on the field when the call was made to halt sports,” Murray said. “Having to go out and pitch knowing that was turning into my last game ever is something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”

Results from NCAA Student-Athlete Well-Being Study surveys conducted in both the spring and fall of 2020 indicated an increasing number of student-athletes reporting mental health concerns as the pandemic dealt out disappointments and caused isolation.

Murray, who had firsthand experience with mental health issues, knew student-athletes would need support. She decided it was time to turn her passion for impacting and empowering athletes into a career as an assistant coach for Rowan. Equipped with new skills from the NCAA Emerging Leaders Seminar that she attended in February, Murray is doing what she can to connect with students.

“As a coach, I really want to be able to build those relationships with student-athletes and help support them through their lives because that was done to me as a student-athlete,” Murray said. Forced “mental toughness” in sports culture is why Murray is so passionate about mental health in athletics.

“I dealt with mental health issues and still do, and people were saying to me, ‘Like, suck it up. Keep going. You're fine,’” Murray said, noting the pressure to compete and be perfect took some of the fun out of the game for her. “I wish people had kind of taken the time at practice to say, ‘Hey, how was your day? How are you doing?’ And if I wasn't doing well, ‘OK, well, what can I do to help you?’”

During Murray’s senior year, she made it a goal to ask at least one teammate a day those questions. From telling a story to take someone’s mind off practice to asking to play catch, she strived to make practice a place where people wanted to go. She is committed to ensuring her players are well by continuing this approach today as a coach. As the communications director for The Hidden Opponent, an advocacy group that raises awareness for student-athlete mental health and addresses the stigma within sports culture, she is also committed to ensuring that all athletes have a platform to address their mental health concerns.

Reaching out to teammates during the pandemic was helpful for many student-athletes during the pandemic. Approximately 90% of the spring 2020 survey participants reported communicating with teammates multiple times per week, and 60% reported communicating with teammates daily.

Peer-to-peer mental health support networks, such as the “Head Game Project” and “We’re All Teammates,” have bolstered that communication.

Soccer players Connor Gavigan, of Florida Gulf Coast, and TC Anderson, of Drake, co-founded “We’re All Teammates,” an online platform for athletes to support one another’s mental health and to provide access to mental health and wellness resources. The two, who had been teammates at Florida Gulf Coast, appeared on a NCAA Social Series episode alongside Ally Irish, women’s lacrosse player at Saint Anselm who co-founded a similar initiative on her campus, the “Head Game Project.”

Anderson said the pandemic has taken away some of the stigma of talking about mental health concerns.

“In a normal situation, people look up to athletes and think, ‘Your life is really good. You probably don’t have any struggles,’ but you might. I think now we’re all kind of struggling together,” Anderson said during the Social Series. “(The pandemic) allowed anyone to feel more comfortable speaking out about their mental health struggles.”

Irish agreed that people are opening up more.

“We were joined together in that feeling of loss and sadness of our season being gone, but I think the positive that came out of it was people were more comfortable talking about (their mental health) because they were all going through it together,” she said. “I personally was able to talk more about those feelings of day-to-day life, not just feelings having to do with pandemic.”

The pandemic was not the only factor affecting mental health during the past year. Student-athletes also grappled with political and racial tensions. Women responding to the fall survey cited worries of political disagreements with family or friends at two times the rate of men, and Black student-athletes cited personal experiences of racism or racial trauma in the month before the survey at more than twice the rate of other athletes of color.

In the latest College Sports Conversation, Trey Moses, former Ball State basketball student and 2020 NCAA Inspiration Award winner, spoke with Tony Diallo, a lacrosse athlete at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Diallo recalled the despair he personally felt after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by police May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. “I felt hopeless,” Diallo said. “I didn’t want to leave the house. I didn’t feel like a successful future is something that I could attain.”

Diallo uses personal experiences from his upbringing as a tool to generate social awareness among his current UMBC teammates and friends. He works to educate his peers through direct dialogue on topics such as misconceptions of the Black Lives Matter movement and microaggressions. Diallo also has facilitated talks between his teammates and Black alumni of the same program to share their stories, as well as contribute to the America East Conference’s #BetterTogether conversations.

“I reached out to my coach and said, ‘This is who I am. It’s part of who I am, and it’s part of the other kids on our team,’” Diallo said. “There’s about seven or eight of us. As a Division I program, having seven or eight Black kids on a lacrosse team is a big deal.”

Diallo embraces that everyone is different. He sees the diversity of his teammates as a strength.

“I don’t have one of those big underdog stories. I did not think I’d be playing lacrosse coming where I came from, but embrace what comes into your life,” Diallo said. “Go out with a positive attitude. Encourage yourself and encourage others to try to be that light in someone’s life.”