*Warning, this article contains discussions around mental health and suicide. The author of this article is not a medical professional and would therefore encourage any readers who have been affected by this content to get in touch with the mental health and suicide prevention charity CALM. Their contact details are at the bottom of the article*
Being a student-athlete comes with the excitement and added responsibility of performing your best on the field and in the classroom. If you’re lucky you’ll step foot on the field in your freshman year doing your best to make a good first impression on your coaches, teammates, and the occasional critic.
This article is part 2 of a 3 part series. Part 1 available here (https://www.fcnotalone.com/an-american-student-athlete-retrospective) is an introduction to my experience as an American Student-Athlete trying to find a path to professional soccer (sorry, football)!
In the following piece, I’ll touch on my experience in my 3rd year as a D1 soccer player at The College of William and Mary in hopes of shedding light on a few of the many challenges student-athletes face on a daily basis.
Year 3: One to Forget
I think the record speaks for itself here. After coming off a decent previous year, we were ready to improve and take our game to the next level. From a personal standpoint, I rebounded and entered the season as a starter and felt back to my normal self. Junior year was an interesting year in that now I was an “upperclassman” at the halfway mark of my college career. For being a relatively small school we made the most of what we had, so I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to maximize my time with friends off the field and outside of the classroom. While we always put in max effort on the field, this was a year of distractions (good and bad) and I think our record reflects that.
This was the first year I had a girlfriend in college and while I was the happiest I had ever been, it did take away from being 100% focused on my game. At the same time, one of my teammates was dealing with some serious mental health conditions and one night I woke up to banging on my door and my friend experiencing a bad trip. Without knowing how or why this was happening, my priority was to calm him down, take him home, and let our coach know he was ok. He ended up leaving school that year and not coming back. A story for another time.
At the time, we had the second highest suicide rate in the country behind Cornell. I knew we shouldn’t be taking cases like my friend’s lightly, but clearly there was a disconnect between the administration and the student body and nothing was really being done to take care of the issues at hand.
One particular night out, our teammates had gotten a text from their roommate (a non-athlete) who was threatening to take his life at one of the bridges on campus. We sprinted across campus and found him ready to act. We tackled him to the ground and it took all 4 of us to hold him down and keep him from inflicting further injury on himself.
I can’t remember exactly what the following days encompassed, but I think we spoke briefly to the police department that night, a school counselor the next day, and then never had any follow ups. These were things that 4 student-athletes had to deal with during a relatively normal semester. They made us feel like these occurrences were typical, frequent, and unimportant. Fortunately, we were smart enough (and also caring enough) to know that this wasn’t the right approach to dealing with serious mental health issues. While I would say we were naive teenagers back then, I think we had the self-awareness to know these things were happening a lot more often than we were led to believe.
It became evident that there were a lot of other things happening off the field that absolutely affected our performance on the field and we had nowhere to turn but each other. The 4 of us went to practice the next day and I remember things feeling a bit off. We had just witnessed one of our friends trying to take his life and here we were lacing up our boots, trying to be tough guys acting like nothing happened.
To put things into perspective, William & Mary has student-athlete mental health services and while having access to a group of experienced professionals like this is great, the program is more a reactionary measure than a proactive solution. When things fell outside the realm of athletics, as in our case, these issues became even harder to navigate. I know this Junior year experience deviates away from my athletic experience, but that’s really the point here. Our lives, and wellbeing, extended beyond the duties of being a D1 athlete. We were athletes, yes. But we were also students, IM basketball refs (to make some cash), live savers, and everything in between. In retrospect, expecting a group of teenagers to rationally and logically balance all these facets of life led to some of the most overwhelming moments in my life.
You can contact the CALM helpline between 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year or if you are in need of text-based support, you can use their webchat facility.
CALM helpline numbers:
Nationwide – 0800 58 58 58 | London – 0808 802 58 58
Webchat available at thecalmzone.net