Two Cents from the Franklin Mint: Mental Illness in Sports–A Time to Act. By Jon Franklin

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Updated: August 10, 2021

Over the past 18 months, the world has dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing political unrest, and the unrelenting tensions of both. Despite the political and physical ramifications of all the unrest, it’s brought to light of something that needs to be addressed: Everyone and everything, including sports, are overwhelmed.

When watching sports, people are normally been a place where they can come together, cheer for their teams collectively, and return to their lives. But when you’re the athlete, what do you do to take care of yourself despite the pressures of performance?

During the Tokyo Olympics, the world of sport focused its attention on American gymnast, Simone Biles. The talented gymnast that blazed through the 2016 Rio Olympics by winning four gold medals (All-around, floor exercise, team competition, vault) and a bronze in the balance beam, withdrew from previous gold medal winning events citing a case of “the twisties”. It’s best described a mental disconnect causing a gymnast to lose situational awareness while performing aerial elements and the ability to safely land on their feet. Biles did recover to claim her second bronze medal in the balance beam.

Other American athletes that have spoken out for Mental Health awareness from their own experiences include former WWE superstar and Hollywood actor, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, tennis champion Serena Williams, and former Olympic judoka & UFC legend Ronda Rousey.

I read countless online comments citing that Simone Biles ‘quit’ on her teammates. I’ll admit, I at first thought she did. But after discovering what “the twisties” were and reading the story of the late Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina, my mind was changed. 

Mukhina, the 1978 world champion in the all-around competition, floor exercise event, and team competition, was set to defend her titles when she broke her leg in training in 1979. While healing, pressure was brought to bear upon the Soviet coaches to speed up Mukhina’s recovery in time for the 1980 Summer Olympics to be held in Moscow. Two weeks before the opening ceremony while training on vault, Mukhina broke her neck while attempting the Thomas Salto – a maneuver that was banned in gymnastics because of this incident. She was projected to win gold in the all-around and team events, along with some individual events, but her injuries resulted in Mukhina becoming a quadriplegic until she passed away in 2006.

Because of her issues and concerns, Simone Biles made the right decision. Medals be damned.

Imagine that Simone Biles suffered a catastrophic injury while in training or competition despite experiencing her mental issues. This could have caused a domino effect of not only Biles, but of her family, coaches, teammates, and other USA Gymnastics or International Olympic Committee officials to suffer emotional, financial, or even legal repercussions because they all could have prevented a tragedy. 

In a previous edition of The Franklin Mint, I brought up the need for student-athletes to insulate themselves by utilizing the COVID-mandated break from sports to reset themselves mentally and physically. But what if the mental issues remain despite returning to the sport?

My answer is simple, continue the break. An athlete will not be at their best until they have resolved their issues. If this break involves therapy, medication, spending time with family and friends, or whatever it is that brings them peace, do it. In the long run, sports will be around when an athlete decides when they want to participate. If you’re a parent, coach, or even a fan that puts pressure upon an athlete to return to play when they’re not ready – shame on you. Their mental health issues are far more important than your desires.

But upon the return to play, I must ask these questions to the student-athlete (in no order):

1. Are you mentally prepared to contribute to the success of the team?

2. Are you able to set aside any conflicts so you can give your absolute best in competition?

3. Are you playing for your personal enjoyment and not sufficing someone else’s pleasure in your participation?

If any of these answers are no or a reluctance to say yes, it’s in your best interest to take more time off. You must have a full commitment to yourself and to your team before returning to play. To rush back into competition after a hiatus can be detrimental to yourself and might even cause a rift in team chemistry.

Thankfully, the world of sport has been an active participant in the fight for mental health awareness. 

All major sports organizations (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, & NCAA) have started mental health resource campaigns to encourage dialogue about mental health issues. In events like the NHL’s Hockey Talks and NBA Mind Health, contacts to mental health counselors are constantly broadcast throughout the games and spotlights are often placed on players through their own battles with mental health issues. 

The North Carolina High School Athletics Association does have information about mental health awareness as given by the Centers for Disease Control with referrals to outside providers. 

In 2019, NHL goaltender Robin Lehner (then of the New York Islanders), became very open with his own struggles with mental illness along with drug and alcohol addiction. With his willingness to seek counseling and enter rehabilitation, Lehner improved his status as an individual and as a player. For his efforts, he was awarded the Bill Masterson Trophy, an award player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.

To any student-athlete at Orange or Cedar Ridge who may be experiencing mental health issues, I know your pain so very much. I have dealt with mental trauma since I was five years old. I could tell you so much regarding mental and physical bullying during my school days, the pressure to succeed in the classroom while juggling countless issues within my family and the perils of working the job of a corrections officer. I’ve been on seven different kinds of medication to treat anxiety and depression and have seen at least a dozen counselors. 

I’ve been there and I will stand with you. You are not alone, and I will help in any way possible. If I can’t, I’m quite certain your teachers, coaches, administrators, parents, pastors, etc. – WILL help you. 

But the only way that a mental health assistance program can truly help, you must admit that you need help and are open to reaching out to someone for that help. The journey of a thousand miles does begin with a single step.

Case in point? On July 31, 2021 – With 17.5 years of combined service, I resigned my commission as a corrections officer because of the above personal issues compiled with an ultra-toxic work environment. If I can leave a toxic environment because it affected my mental health, you can step aside from sports so you can improve your well-being.

To the parents, coaches, administrators, and parents, the conversation of improving the mental health for students and athletes needs to take place. The signs should never be ignored or brushed off as “growing pains” or the student-athlete is “having a bad day”. While this could be true, it could be the unraveling of stress in their young lives. There’s no telling what they’re going through and to ignore it will keep building the pressure until they suffer a mental breakdown or God forbid, engage in self-injurious behavior to including suicide. The time to act is NOW.

As a society, if we continue to kick the can of mental health awareness down the road of life, then the road of life will be lined with the souls we failed to reach. 

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