TWU Gymnastics

Repairing Athletes Mental Health: The Identity Crisis

You have seen all the headlines, ESPN articles and documentaries about the disheartening stories of athletes struggling with their own bouts of mental health. We know at the surface level that many more people are living under more stress, anxiety and depression than ever before. Yet the underlying question remains what are we really doing for them. Are we prescribing more pills or getting to the root cause like their identity?

Most of the time it appears that we are suppressing the problems versus proactively preventing these struggles. Honestly, most people would rather not even believe these are real struggles. They live in this world of “just get over it” rather than taking the time to listen.

I have personally traveled the country speaking on this topic as well as had thousands of conversations within my own facility and you would be amazed at the number of people, especially parents and coaches, that think “not my child” or “not my team”.

But before we dive too deep let’s take a look at a few of the numbers and statistics:

First, let’s look at high school students and how tragically teens are more likely to consider suicide as a solution to their problems than in the past. In a recent study…

  • 17% of high school students have seriously considered attempting suicide
  • 8% have attempted suicide in the past twelve months

Then moving on to college athletes in a recent study done by the American College Health Association 48% of athletes felt depressed!

Insane to think that nearly half of college athletes are depressed right now as we speak. On top of that I would bet that those numbers are only on the rise!

Stop Boring Me With Stats

Now at this point I am sure you have a couple different thoughts. Stop boring me with numbers and stats. What’s the solution to slowing down these trends and how do you know?

Step one towards slowing down these trends of stress, anxiety, depression and sucide is talking more about a common root cause for these negative feelings. These are not not feelings and emotions kids should have to live with every single day.

For nearly the last decade having these conversations with tens of thousands of kids, families, parents, coaches and teams the common denominator with so many is the lack of any kind of identity.

Yes, most of these people know themselves on the surface level. They know that they are a student at their university and that they are an athlete. Ask them to define themselves beyond that and most simply say that’s all there is to their life!

It’s not that kids don’t want more outta their life but that most simply do not take the time to decide what exactly they do want. They do not define the hobbies that interest them. The type of relationships they want with family and friends. 

Hardly any know what their core values are in their life. As my mentor told me, values drive behaviors. If you are not clear on your values as a person it’s like you are bouncing around all day because there is little clarity on what’s meaningful to you.

When you define your values. You know your standards and priorities, decisions become much easier in life. Everything is either a Hell Yes or a Hell No. If it meets your values and brings good feelings then it’s a Hell Yes!

Better Questions

As I mentioned, people do not take the time to sit down and decide. As we also know better questions give better answers. Another reason why I think it is so impactful to have someone (a mentor) ask questions to force us as humans to think beyond the surface. Challenge us to think outside the box and honestly challenge us to be truthful with ourselves.

It’s so easy today to become defined by what everyone else wants us to be. We are almost punished for standing out in today’s world. If you are different oftentimes comes criticism yet it’s those who choose their own paths that become the mavericks of the world.

It is much easier and safer to fit in with a crowd rather than stand out. Fitting in gives us a sense of security, comfort and protection yet we sacrifice our own individuality.

Rather what if we were able to define who we REALLY are as individuals and living as that person every day. What type of person would you like to be? The amount of joy and relief it would give you is almost indescribable. Because loving yourself for you is wildly beneficial and constructive.

Our lives have become as if we are actors each day, great actors at that! I read in a book the other day where the author Vadim said:

“The hardest role to play is the one where you play yourself and allow yourself to remove the mask and be yourself. It is much easier to play someone else because putting on a mask is easy…It is more difficult to remove the mask but if you can take off the mask what ensues is not role play but what they call life on the stage”.

I Get It

I get it, people start thinking it’s just not that easy. Or they think you don’t understand! And that’s the exact opposite…

When I first showed up to West Virginia in 2006, the moment my parents dropped me off I immediately felt the emotions of lost, confused and sadness.  This sadness began to spiral downward and out of control.

I would lay in bed trying to answer the simple question of “Who are you Ryan?” and the only things I could come up with was my name. I was a student and wrestler at WVU. Then to make matters worse I began to pick away at those answers.

Was a good athlete? I was not going to crack the lineup that year or potentially ever. I remember over the next couple weeks beginning to ask new questions because I had nothing to attach my identity to…

My sadness began turning more towards a depressed state. The tough part was feeling these emotions yet listening to everyone run around the dorms like college the experience of a lifetime.

Along with sadness came a feeling of lost and confusion. Confused why everyone else seemed to have it all put together. Had it all figured out. It appeared that everyone around me was enjoying their experience and had the puzzle of life put together.

My constant comparison to everyone else and trying to live up to society’s timeline began to have me questioning if life was worth living for…

Until one night I reached that tipping point. Laying there in bed thinking of two questions. Was life worth living for? I had no answer to this question. The next question was did I actually want to wake up in the morning? The answer to that one was No.

I looked at a bottle of pills and started to think if I swallowed enough of them, hopefully I would not wake up in the morning.

What Happened Next

I spent the next four years masking my identity throughout college. Masking my identity as I began my career. Until I found mentors who began guiding me with better questions.

Ultimately after over 2.5 decades learning that the root cause for so many people just like it was for me was an identity crisis. I had no clue who I was beyond the generic answers. Learning that WE actually get to define the desires and life we want not parents, society, coaches or peers.

There is a process and a framework for this lightbulb moment to go off for everyone. It just takes that first small step and willingness to answer a few simple questions. Once you take this small step it becomes a little better feeling.

The feelings and emotions slowly just creep in to take over you as a person where you realize you are supremely confident, loving, joyful and a freakin Superstar!

It’s time we spread the identity message! You are deserving to have it all!

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