athletic department staff stands in front of Memorial Stadium on the set of College Gameday
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln sport psychology department is changing the stigma of mental health in Husker athletics. Photo courtesy of UNL's Sport Psychology Department

COVID-19 has been affecting everyone’s health, not just physically but mentally.

And that includes sports. 

“One of the things we frequently saw in our athletes, when they’re in school and in season, their lives are super regimented,” said Kate Higgins, an athletic neuropsychologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Everything is very scheduled. Everything is very structured. Then when everything got blown up with the virus, I think a lot of them suddenly struggled to create that structure that they had previously…A lot of anxiety. A lot of feelings of ‘I’m not in control of everything’.”

Hallie Roman, a psychology major and diver on the UNL Swim and Dive team, said COVID-19 was especially challenging for the members of her team.

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Roman and her teammates have been practicing with a club team in Lincoln, Neb. Photo courtesy of Husker Athletics.

“We’re not one of those sports where you can just go on a run or play catch in the yard with your teammate,” Roman said. “It’s hard because there was only so much we can do at home.”

The professional sports world isn’t immune to mental health challenges either. DeMar DeRozan, the San Antonio Spurs shooting guard, and Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers power forward, are among the first stars in sports who really brought to light to mental health issues in sports.

DeRozan first shared his struggles in February of 2018, and Love followed DeRozan’s lead the following March and wrote an article in The Players Tribune titled, “Everyone Is Going Through Something.” 

“Growing up, you figure out really quickly how a boy is supposed to act,” Love wrote. “You learn what it takes to ‘be a man.’ It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own. So for 29 years of my life, I followed that playbook.”

Love wrote that he thought for his entire life mental health was someone else’s problem. 

“To me, it was a form of weakness that could derail my success in sports or make me seem weird or different.”

Higgins said she thinks there are gender stigmas around mental health in sports.

“Male athletes should look this way and female athletes, if they do look this way, they can be kind of dismissed because they’re just being emotional.”

“I don’t even know what to say besides they’re awful, they’re not true,” Higgins said. “And they don’t reflect healthy functioning. I applaud Kevin Love’s bravery and his outspokenness on this issue. This is detrimental to performance if people are unwilling to recognize that the brain is an incredibly powerful tool for performance.”

Love won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs on June 20 this year for bringing awareness of mental health issues among athletes. 

Roman feels society sometimes forgets athletes have feelings too.

“Sometimes, people see student-athletes as tough and persevering which is definitely true, but we’re all normal people too going through our own life problems,” Roman said. “I think there’s a stigma there where people expect athletes to be perfect and never have any kind of fear or setbacks.”

Zachary Peters, a gymnast and psychology major at UNL, believes people aren’t educated enough on mental health to really understand how serious it is.

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Peters believes men’s mental health would be better if they didn’t bottle up their thoughts. Photo courtesy of Husker Athletics.

“I know a lot of people are scared to go to a psychologist,” he said. “It makes people nervous, and they don’t want to tell people about it. I think Nebraska is doing the right thing in making it important and focusing on it, but as a society, it’s tough. Especially men. We’re supposed to not show our feelings, not talk about them. And we’re supposed to move on with life and that’s it.”

The Big Ten is beginning to be more aware of mental health. The conference purchased ‘Calm’ accounts in the beginning of May for every athlete, coach and staff personnel in the athletic departments for all the Big Ten schools. Calm is a mindfulness meditation app.

Higgins said in their department they have an honest, simple approach to the stigma of mental health. 

“In the department, we try to talk about it as very matter of fact,” Higgins said. “We’re holistic beings, and athletes spend so much time taking care of their physical bodies. Why would we not spend at least as much time taking care of their mental health, their brain functioning and their ability to think clearly? We can always do more. There still is a stigma around mental health in our department, but I think we do a good job.”

While the athletic department at UNL is doing a better job, the state hasn’t done as well according to Higgins.

“Within the community in general, Nebraska as a state, I don’t think we do a great job with mental health care,” she said. “Whether you’re looking at our ratio of providers to population, or Senator Sasse’s graduation speech where he pretty openly mocked mental health and mental health care, there is still a lot of stigma in our state, and there are not a lot of care options, which also makes it more difficult.”

Even though there is more conversation about mental health, it is not where it should be. And with sports on the line this year because of COVID-19, Higgins says mental health among student-athletes may only get worse.

“I feel potentially one of the changes is this is going to change people’s sense of uncertainty,” she said. “That’s a part of normal maturation anyways. You realize the world is not a sure place…as you get older, you realize there’s just no guarantees in life. I think for some people, they may end up learning that lesson harder and faster than they would have normally which isn’t necessarily a bad thing…although I think it could pretty easily increase people’s sense of lack of control which can relate to anxiety.”

Peters feels that while it’s currently all about how the athlete approaches the challenge, the path forward may be bumpy.

“I feel like it’s all about perspective at this point,” he said. “Mentally, overall, I feel athletes are in an okay place because people are able to train now and workout and that’s helping, but I think it could get a lot harder if seasons are canceled again.” 

This pandemic has helped put the focus on the mental health of coaches, as well. 

“Because there’s a certain personality type a lot of times that ends up being a coach at a Power 5, Division 1 college, I think the sitting, the waiting game, the uncertainty, you may or may not get answers this week, you may change them the week after that was a struggle for some of our coaches,” Higgins said.

While COVID-19 may worsen the mental health of athletes, the sport psychology department’s number of visits per day has significantly decreased during the pandemic.

“I think there’s a couple of reasons for that,” Higgins said. “The stress of school and sports for the most part is gone other than the anxiety of what is going to happen next. A lot of people are home, which hopefully is a place of comfort and calm and is actually helpful for mental health. It’s just out of the routine.”

Higgins’ current challenge: help the student-athletes to stay motivated.

“It’s really hard when you’ve lost your structure, you’ve lost your accountability and now you have to convince yourself to get out of bed and go run, go workout, go do weights,” she said. “I feel for a lot of us, it’s changed from big existential identity issues to what do we need to do to put in place so you get your workouts in every day?”

Higgins believes when Fall comes, their numbers in sessions will go back to normal.

“We have really high rates of utilization,” Higgins said. “I don’t mean that to sound negative. Our athletes are really comfortable with coming to see us and working with us. I think that speaks to Dr. Brett’s (the sports psychology department chair) ability to get us in and make us not the weird head shakers that everyone wants to avoid.” 

Higgins’ hope is that all of the texting, meetings both individually and as a team, and their podcast series will prevent their jobs from turning chaotic when the fall semester starts up again in the middle of August. In fact, she believes there may actually be a positive out of this pandemic after all.

“Throughout the months we were quarantined with the virus, it seemed like talking about mental health and recognizing symptoms of poor mental health or deteriorating mental health became way more public then it ever was before the virus which I felt was so exciting,” Higgins said. “That’s one thing I hope sticks around after the virus. I hope it’s a change in our culture that doesn’t go away.”

 

Cody Frederick is a fourth-year student majoring in sports media and journalism and minoring in business administration and horticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is from a small town in Northeast Nebraska called Winside, and he is currently interning for UNLimited Sports out of Lincoln.