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What mental health support looks like for athletes

What we can learn from club sports.

For anyone who missed it yesterday, the Indiana Daily Student dropped a bombshell of a story about Indiana University’s head volleyball coach, Steve Aird, and the toxic culture he’s allegedly instilled in the program. You need to read it.

The story and the subsequent publicity should put some pressure on Indiana’s administration to take action, something they’ve apparently been avoiding for some reason. The university launched an investigation in December 2021 and wrapped it up in January 2022 before any of the players were interviewed, according to the IDS, concluding that Aird had not violated the terms of his contract.

That something like this could still be happening in May 2022 is disheartening, but not completely surprising. Indiana faced similar issues with Kevin Wilson before, but between Naomi Osaka’s hiatus from the top ranks of competitive tennis and Simone Biles’ decision to step away from the Olympics for mental health reasons, the mental health side of sports and athletes has come to the national forefront since Wilson was fired in 2016.

I played a club sport during my time at Indiana, and I was pretty mediocre at it. My coach, Peter Nelson, was not welcomed to town with a big contract as the program’s savior, the way Aird was a few years ago.

We practiced in the John Mellencamp Pavillion alongside varsity athletes, but Club Sports was always just a phone call away to let us know how tenuous our access to the athletic facilities was.

The parallels between my experience and that of a varsity athlete are certainly limited, but I think Aird, Wilson, and coaches who’ve shown similar behavior out there could learn from the way Indiana Lacrosse treated its players’ mental health under Coach Nelson.

Like many college athletes and students in general, I started having mental health issues for the first time when I was in college. I started getting treatment for recurring panic attacks while I was a sophomore at Indiana in 2015, but given how hit or miss mental health treatment can be, I never really got this under control until the last year or so.

Luckily for me, the lacrosse team’s culture regarding mental health was already fantastic. One of my teammates, David Haggerty, was working with a mental health research group on the side, so we partnered with them for an annual “Stick it to Stigma” game aimed at defeating the idea that athletes are rugged, stoic, physical beings.

For the game, we got special green uniforms - the official color of mental health awareness - and recorded a video as a team talking about our own experiences with mental illness. The sponsoring organization, BringChangeToMind, even sent people down to record the game and broadcast it on YouTube. We did everything we could as a club sport to get this issue into the spotlight.

Despite these team efforts, I personally could not bring myself to “stick it to the stigma.” I planned on speaking in the video, then let the moment come and pass while my teammates and friends shared their stories. I did a lot to put space between these abstract discussions about “mental health” in general and the fact that I was still having panic attacks on a regular basis.

My senior year though, I got to the point where I could not hide it anymore. Driving to practice or home games could trigger a panic attack, as did high-pressure drills and conditioning at our practices. Things were not trending in the right direction for me.

Because of the aforementioned team culture and involvement with mental health initiatives, I wasn’t necessarily nervous to approach Coach Nelson. I was, however, unsure of how to explain myself if he had any questions about it. Mental health issues were completely new to me, and I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what was happening to me.

This fear was unfounded. There were no further questions, and I was told to do the best I could given my limitation; essentially exactly what one would expect to hear in response to a physical injury in sports.

Aside from the instantaneous relief of being able to sit out drills as needed, Coach Nelson assured me that my spot in the lineup was not in jeopardy. Like I said before, I wasn’t necessarily good at lacrosse, so it meant a lot to me that I had earned regular playing time by my senior year. That I was not forced to choose between that playing time and my own wellbeing was instrumental to my success as an athlete and person.

Of course, it took a lot of support from my teammates as well. My housemates thought nothing of taking over driving duties for me if I wasn’t having a good day and never once made me feel badly about the fact that I struggled with these basic tasks.

Even years after graduation, once I finally got a handle on my mental health, one of them offered to drive us down to Bloomington from Chicago for our team reunion, just to ensure that I wouldn’t need to suffer through the ride.

All of this is to say that Indiana’s volleyball culture does not have to be the way it allegedly is.

Athletic programs do not need to operate on fear and internal competition to succeed. Under Coach Nelson, Indiana lacrosse reached the MCLA National Championship for the first time in program history in 2014, then again in 2018. As the IDS observed in yesterday’s article, the volleyball program is trending in the opposite direction.

I wanted to write this because, even though there’s been an increased discussion about the fact that athletes struggle with mental health issues, I haven’t seen much in the way of what it means to support an athlete through these issues. Maybe, for once, the varsity sports can emulate the club sports.

And if you see Pete Nelson around Bloomington, buy him a beer for me.