The final whistle blows and you trudge back to the locker room head held high after a hard fought victory. You look to your left and your right and you see teammates, warriors walking off a battle field. These are some of the strongest people you know, seemingly unbreakable, willing to sacrifice anything to play through the pain. You love these guys like your brothers, you play together, cry together, and experience the highs and lows of life. But the million dollar question is can you talk to them? I mean really talk to them. From the first time you strap on your cleats you are told that you need to be mentally tough.
That everything in your life is simply an obstacle for you to overcome another challenge to conquer but life doesn’t work like that. I played in locker rooms with over 100 guys at a given time, I was lucky to know I could call on at least 3 or 4 of them if I needed them. However, the pride that came with being mentally tough and having a warriors mentality led me either unable or unwilling to reach out for help until it was almost too late. This toxic framing of mental toughness has allowed too many athletes to slip through the cracks being either unwilling or unable to reach out to their brothers for help that may be going through the same struggles.
Why is it that I am willing to carry you off the field when you get hurt but unwilling to let you lean on me when you are struggling in life? Why do we not speak about these things? The short answer is the pride and fear of weakness that it took for us to get to this point. That mental toughness and sheer force of will is what got you this far but it will break you if you are not aware of it.
Recently, on an episode of I AM ATHLETE https://youtu.be/iwBzCdYhB8A , Chad Johnson breaks down having recently lost his mother and Channing Crowder asks the question,” We do business together, our kids play together we barbeque and gamble together why do we feel like you couldn’t call me if you were going through it?” The entire episode talks about the toxic masculinity that we are raised and trained in, conditioned to be tough. I would bleed for you and lay my body on the line but don’t come to me with tears in your eyes, that’s soft. This mindset is killing us, not figuratively but literally killing us. Every year we are losing lives unnecessarily because we do not truly check on our friends and because we are too afraid and too prideful to reach out for help.
Time after time, we hear the same story, and usually we are hearing the story from the lucky ones that were able and willing to get the help they needed. The Players’ Tribune had another story last October from retired NFL linebacker Marcus Smith II. Smith’s article titled “ I’m Still Here” https://www.theplayerstribune.com/posts/marcus-smith-nfl-mental-health talks in depth about his struggles and the feeling of isolation he felt in dealing with his emotions. Like many other athletes the culture of mental toughness almost cost him his life, as he felt there was no one to reach out to.
“Mental health issues, especially in the Black community, are often looked down upon. Going to therapy means something is wrong with you. Our ancestors didn’t have therapy, they had God. And they survived the most brutal of trials and tribulations… our community needs more investment in and openness to mental health resources. Because what we’re seeing — what our children are seeing — is going to impact us and them for a long time. And we’ll need to talk about it”
We need to do more to create open lines of dialogues both in our locker rooms while we are playing and our youth while we are coaching, mentoring or teaching. This stigma can be fixed and will be if we take the time to reach out and care for one another on AND off the field. Today, take the time to call an old teammate or a friend. Check on them and open the line of dialogue so they know they can come to you for help. For those still playing, do not be afraid to be vulnerable around your teammates and your friends. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help or to check in on someone you see struggling