The term “mental health” was previously not discussed in sports. If you weren’t mentally strong, able to push through any kind of pain, especially in male athletics, you were considered weak.
That is not the case any longer. In today’s society, mental health is widely discussed. Even within locker rooms, where the idea of struggling mentally was once taboo, more players feel comfortable opening up about what’s going on in their lives outside of their sport.
As Ohio State head football coach Ryan Day has said, mental and physical health go hand-in-hand in making an athlete perform at his or her best.
“I think we all have the responsibility to make sure that people understand that part of being healthy is being mentally healthy,” Day explained. “And the thing that I would just say is that everyone has physical health and everybody has mental health. And sometimes when you hear the term mental health, people take pause. Well, it’s just like eating well and putting good food in your body and working out physically. Having a strong and healthy mind is critically important.”
At Ohio State, mental health is an acceptable conversation around the athletic facilities. On more than one occasion since becoming head coach in January of 2019, Day spoke of his battles with mental health issues and he and his wife, Nina, created The Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent Mental Wellness last June to help spread awareness. Multiple Buckeye football players have opened up about their individual battles, something that wouldn’t have happened within a team years ago.
But it’s not just football where this is the case. During the 2019-20 college basketball season, Scarlet and Gray freshman point guard DJ Carton took a leave of absence to deal with mental health issues that stemmed from high school. During that time, head coach Chris Holtmann, who announced in a press conference that he regularly attends therapy, and the rest of the Ohio State team were understanding and helpful for Carton and his family, knowing that some people battle more than just the opponent on the court.
Even after Carton’s decision to transfer to Marquette, Holtmann continued his praise for and defense of his former point guard’s decision.
“I think we’re in an environment here that’s been created by (athletic director Gene Smith), obviously Ryan has spearheaded this, where I think all of us are really taking a much greater look at how mental health has impacted student-athletes,” Holtmann said this week. “I think my point was just to support DJ and the fact that there’s nothing wrong with a young man stepping away in a moment where he needs help. There’s certainly nothing wrong with a young man requesting that. That was a decision we came to along with his family and it was very much the right decision for him.”
What made talking to players about mental health issues easier is the athletic department’s focus on the topic and dealing with problems openly. Last August, Ohio State hired a sports psychologist Chelsi Day and two athletic counselors, Charron Sumler and Candice Williams, to work under lead sports psychologist Jamey Houle in order to provide increased access to mental health and performance enhancement services to student-athletes.
Throughout the 2019-20 school year, Houle and his staff worked with student-athletes in all sports, spending more time out at practice and getting to know players, coaches and staff so they felt comfortable coming and talking to them about any issues they experienced.
“The program’s definitely evolved over time,” Houle said on a teleconference on Wednesday. “A big part of our program, especially in the beginning, is introducing our staff around, getting to know coaches, athletic trainers, medical staff, and really being out and about. Not just in our offices doing therapy, but also doing preventative work, introduction talks to teams and that kind of stuff. So one of the things that’s really changed over time is that student-athletes access to us and then also our visibility.”
Houle and his staff’s job was much easier by the symbiotic relationship with Smith, Day and Holtmann, among others, and their willingness to talk to their players about mental health and encourage them, if they have a need, to seek help.
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While admitting that his thinking about mental health has changed in the last five or so years, Holtmann was more than open to having the sports psychologists and counselors around his team last season and demonstrated his appreciation on the topic with Carton. The football program, now led by Day, has continued to have speakers address the team on the topic as recently as a few weeks ago. And while Day believes players must decide to seek help on their own, he wants them to be aware of the resources available to them through Ohio State.
Having figureheads like Day and Holtmann, who are so revered in the Columbus and college sports community, speak positively about mental health is a “game-changer.
“I think that when players don’t think that a coach is going to judge them or the coach is going to think that they’re weak or isn’t going to lose trust in them and that they can open up about things that are going on in their life because these are 18 to 22-year old men who have lives outside of sports and families,” Chelsi Day said on the teleconference. “So I think with that coach support, it makes our lives a lot easier as clinicians.”
With the constant demands on student-athletes, on the playing surface, in the classroom and in their daily lives, it’s natural that mental health issues will arise for some. While many players are looked up to and regarded as superstars, these are people too, dealing with stresses like the rest of us.
Ohio State has made a collective effort, across its various athletics, to make sure that student-athletes have a place to address any issues they face and understand that this is no longer a stigma, but rather a fact of life that many people deal with and can be managed.
“I think both of those reasons are great reasons why we’re bringing a lot of attention to this,” Day said, “and I’m proud to say I think Ohio State’s on the forefront of this, nationally and certainly in athletics.”