Basketball is Psychology XIX
The urgency of a physical injury is obvious. When your ankle turns purple or your shoulder dislocates, everyone can see it, and you go straight to the trainer, or the doctor, or the emergency room.
However, being unwell mentally is much less obvious. You can’t tell by looking at someone that they are struggling with a mental illness. Kevin Love described his panic attack, “as real as a broken hand or a sprained ankle”.
There’s an unwritten rule that as an athlete you should never show signs of weakness, on or off the court. Kevin Love says, “It’s like a playbook: Be strong. Don’t talk about your feelings. Get through it on your own.”
One in Four people are affected with a mental or neurological disorders in their lifetime. Athletes may even be more prone because of the constant pressures to perform, especially now that every game is broadcasted, anyone can be a critic on social media, and the difficulties of balancing basketball, school, and a social life can take a toll on anyone.
A recent study done by Georgetown University found that while 17% of those in an athletic program were suffering from depression, 75%-85% never seek help.
This is an alarming statistic because people don’t feel comfortable talking about their mental illnesses, and yet they are so common. When someone tears their ACL or has any sort of physical injury, they typically don’t have a problem going to a doctor for it, and discussing it with other people. With mental health, there’s a stigma, and people are afraid to talk about their struggles.
In March 2018, NBA All-Star Kevin Love wrote about his own struggles with mental health and panic attacks in The Players Tribune. This article gave hope to countless other athletes going through mental health struggles, and it’s worth sharing.
Kevin Love made it okay not to be okay.
“Call it a stigma or call it fear or insecurity — you can call it a number of things — but what I was worried about wasn’t just my own inner struggles but how difficult it was to talk about them. I didn’t want people to perceive me as somehow less reliable as a teammate, and it all went back to the playbook I’d learned growing up.
I couldn’t bury what had happened and try to move forward. As much as part of me wanted to, I couldn’t allow myself to dismiss the panic attack and everything underneath it. I didn’t want to have to deal with everything sometime in the future, when it might be worse. I knew that much.
So I did one seemingly little thing that turned out to be a big thing. The Cavs helped me find a therapist, and I set up an appointment.
I’m the last person who’d have thought I’d be seeing a therapist. I remember when I was two or three years into the league, a friend asked me why NBA players didn’t see therapists. I scoffed at the idea. No way any of us is gonna talk to someone. I was 20 or 21 years old, and I’d grown up around basketball. And on basketball teams? Nobody talked about what they were struggling with on the inside. I remember thinking, What are my problems? I’m healthy. I play basketball for a living. What do I have to worry about?
I’d never heard of any pro athlete talking about mental health, and I didn’t want to be the only one. I didn’t want to look weak.
In the short time I’ve been meeting with the therapist, I’ve seen the power of saying things out loud in a setting like that. And it’s not some magical process. It’s terrifying and awkward and hard, at least in my experience so far. I know you don’t just get rid of problems by talking about them, but I’ve learned that over time maybe you can better understand them and make them more manageable. Look, I’m not saying, Everyone go see a therapist. The biggest lesson for me since November wasn’t about a therapist — it was about confronting the fact that I needed help.
It really makes you think about how we are all walking around with experiences and struggles — all kinds of things — and we sometimes think we’re the only ones going through them. The reality is that we probably have a lot in common with what our friends and colleagues and neighbors are dealing with. So I’m not saying everyone should share all their deepest secrets — not everything should be public and it’s every person’s choice. But creating a better environment for talking about mental health … that’s where we need to get to.
I want to end with something I’m trying to remind myself about these days: Everyone is going through something that we can’t see.
The thing is, because we can’t see it, we don’t know who’s going through what and we don’t know when and we don’t always know why. Mental health is an invisible thing, but it touches all of us at some point or another. It’s part of life. Like DeMar said, ‘You never know what that person is going through.’
Mental health isn’t just an athlete thing. What you do for a living doesn’t have to define who you are. This is an everyone thing. No matter what our circumstances, we’re all carrying around things that hurt — and they can hurt us if we keep them buried inside. Not talking about our inner lives robs us of really getting to know ourselves and robs us of the chance to reach out to others in need. So if you’re reading this and you’re having a hard time, no matter how big or small it seems to you, I want to remind you that you’re not weird or different for sharing what you’re going through.
Just the opposite. It could be the most important thing you do. It was for me.”
-- Kevin Love
Often times we feel helpless when it comes to the subject of mental health, but there are things we can all do to help.
1. Stop asking “How are you?” as a rhetorical question.
Mean it. Genuinely ask people how they are doing and wait for a real answer. You can even add how are you doing mentally or emotionally. Everyone is going through something, so everyone should be treated with great care.
2. Create an environment where it’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.
Often times, athletes are not open and honest with their coaches about their mental health struggles because they’re scared of losing playing time, respect, or their status of being a ‘tough’ player. From day one, coaches have to make it clear that mental wellbeing is the highest priority, and there won’t be consequences for being open and honest about it. However, it’s not okay to stay that way, which is why seeking a professional's help should be highly encouraged. It’s okay to need help.