By Aggie Gullace
“College will be the best 4 years of your life,” is constantly preached once you enter high school.
Once you mention playing a sport in college, faces scrunch and doubts will fill your head.
Stressing or having anxiety over a college sport begins for many years before even committing
to a school. This is the beginning of an athlete’s mental health journey.
Athletes spend years to become the best they can be to get recruited and play at their dream school, emailing colleges
constantly, and attending as many prospect days as they can to continue their career because
they love the sport. They work hard for years and are finally in college seeing that their work
can pay off. In one swift movement, there’s a loud pop, crack, or pull, and a player is on the
ground now facing possible months of recovery, restarting their college athletic career.
There are many degrees of injury in athletics. Pulling your hamstring, you are out for a week. Tearing
an ACL, you are out for 7-12 months. Breaking a bone, you are out for 1-3 months. However, no matter
the degree, the time an athlete spends on the sidelines can severely impact their mental health.
They worry about future playing time, missing out on practices that would make them better, or not
being able to compete against teammates to fight for a starting spot. Anxiety levels are high.
Some may be less focused on school. Falling behind in both areas adds even more overpowering
This Happened To Me
It was 52 seconds into the fourth quarter. I was breaking down my feet to meet my markup with
the ball. On my pivot back, there was a loud pop, and I was on the ground. A week later, I found
out I had unfortunately torn my ACL. “You are looking at 7-9 months of recovery.” “If you don’t do
the right workouts over the summer, you will fall behind.” “Your knee will never feel the same.”
“Be positive.” “Would you rather just stop playing?” So many people have told me a million
different things on how I should feel or how I have to come back.
Meanwhile, I have barely had anytime to unpack this new bump in the road for myself. The first month before and after surgery were so much better than expected. There were mostly positive thoughts, getting copious amounts of love
and support from family and friends, and having a great support system. My coach had told me
shortly into my recovery that I will have my breakdowns periodically through the next 9 months.
I would say my first breakdown would be the week leading into my team’s semifinal game for
the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. I couldn’t wrap my mind on the fact that I was unable to
play lacrosse. As happy as I was for my team, I believe that was when reality began to hit.
I asked myself if I wanted to play college lacrosse anymore. I did not know if it was even worth it
anymore and how I would go about my recovery to satisfy everyone. This was the beginning of
falling into a cloudy and semi-dark recovery. My orthopedic doctor was extremely aggressive in
the best way for recovering from the ACL surgery. For the most part of the summer, I thought I
was doing the right things. Beginning to skip and slide shuffle, I considered my mini victories and
thought going back into fall semester that my trainer would be proud of my progress. I would come
to find out that my aggressive approach for doing lacrosse motivated exercises was not the key.
The basic anatomy of my knee was still not normal when it should have been, and my mobility was
still poor. The second week of the fall semester, my second breakdown started and continued for the
next 4 weeks. I was being told I didn’t do the right exercises all summer, and my quad was not as
strong as it should be. This genuinely made me not want to play lacrosse anymore. Having to go
through fall ball knowing that I would be missing another season, my mental health was degrading.
I was constantly worrying about playing time in season knowing I don’t have as much experience as
my other teammates and still not being able to play the sport I came to school to play. Overall, I was
feeling like I had no purpose.
Now, going into month six of recovery, my progress has improved
tremendously, and I believe I needed that breakdown to push me to be better. It showed me that I can
pull myself out of a dark spot, and the end goal of playing lacrosse again is closer and closer
everyday. Although my mental health is fairly good now, worry about getting injured again or not playing as
much as I did is constantly on my mind. It’s an uphill battle, and unfortunately, I am not the only
one who deals with these emotions.
My Story Is Not Unique: Here’s the Problem
Sports injuries are an emotional seesaw for many athletes. Being an athlete doesn’t
define you, but it becomes part of your personality which can cause an uber-emotional
response to an injury. According to the National Library of Medicine, 22% of athletes quit their
sport after a serious injury/surgery, and 8% quit due to fear of injury. This study highlights that
an athlete’s physical status does not correspond with their mental status due to high pressure
to return and to be better than where they left off. This is known as a mental block. (1)
Jackie Allibone took the time to make a podcast about her ACL injury and the mental aspects she
faced. She hits the aspects of how many athletes feel about sports and how playing gives self worth,
staying focused, being motivated outside of school, and how athletics can fill a void of
confidence. Then, she described how disconnected an athlete can feel from the rest of the team
due to injury, feeling forgotten about, and the overwhelming pathetic feeling of doing RDLs on
the sideline while the team is doing 20 minutes of conditioning. Her emotional recovery is
most likely similar to many other athletes with season ending injury. (2)
Here’s a Non-Profit Working to Solve the Problem
Let’s Get Real About Athlete Mental Health (LGRAAMH) is a registered non-profit
organization that allows athletes anywhere to use their platform to talk about their own mental
health battles related to collegiate sports. (3) There are different blogs to respond and let
feelings out on their website. There are weekly Zoom meetings to vent about what an athlete is
dealing with. This allows athletes anywhere to talk to others outside of their school about their
mental battle and have ambassadors guide them into new outlooks.
How Can You Help
If you have an athlete at home or live with one, open the discussion of their mental
health early on. Normalizing mental health allows more appeal to share feelings instead of
suppressing them. Donating to any non-profit allows them to continue their amazing work to
spread awareness. Athletes should also get into exercises that strengthen areas of common injury since that is a major issue in sports injury. Wear and tear after continuous years of one sport makes
athletes more susceptible to injury. Taking early action could prevent the severity of injuries, so
if you have an athlete at home or are an athlete yourself, precautionary exercises can always help.
(1) Myer, G. D., Jayanthi, N., Difiori, J. P., Faigenbaum, A. D., Kiefer, A. W., Logerstedt, D., &
Micheli, L. J. (2015). Sport specialization, part I: Does early sports specialization increase
negative outcomes and reduce the opportunity for success in young athletes? Sports health.
Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4547120/
(2)Allibone, J. (2021). Sidelined stories: Podcast for medically sidelined athletes. Sidelined USA.
Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://www.sidelinedusa.org/sidelined-stories
(3)Nadeau, B. (2021). Let’s get real about athlete mental health. Let’s Get Real About Athlete
Mental Health. Retrieved October 18, 2022, from https://www.letsgetrealforathletes.org/#/
What do you think?