25 Aug UNCW athletics’ mental health approach backed up by Osaka, Biles
A redshirt senior on the UNCW men’s soccer team, Drew Rabil has gone through the full range of experiences – elation and frustration, uncertainty and confidence, confusion and knowledge. With what’s happened over the past few years for UNCW athletes, moments on and off the field have become intertwined.
And as tennis star Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles spoke to the world this year about what they needed to do to address their own hurdles with mental health, it was both a blessing and a surprise.
“It was eye-opening to see these athletes that we all think are on top of the world, they’re human too,” Rabil said.
The year 2021 might go down as the moment mental health forced itself into the daily conversation of sports at every level. At UNCW, however, players and coaches say it’s been that way for a while.
“From my five years here, mental health here at UNCW has come a long way. My freshman year, I honestly had no idea if we even had mental health services. Now, we have people come in to talk to us. Athletics has their own counselor we can schedule a meeting with … I know a couple of guys have gone to see her,” Rabil said.
“It’s good to see our school and athletic department, we have really grown in that area and we continue to recognize mental health issues as a real thing.”
UNCW follows through on strategic plan
When UNCW released its athletic strategic plan in 2018, the fourth of seven tenets focused on athlete experience, including physical and mental health.
The plan was put together before she arrived in 2019, but UNCW deputy athletic director Tiffany Tucker said that, while in her previous position at South Carolina State, mental health already had been a frequent discussion point in administrative meetings on campus and nationally.
“Everything doesn’t have to be packaged in the stereotypical things with mental health – bipolar, or taking medicine — sometimes we just have to help our brain change how we think about things so we can decrease anxiety, or the pressure, or the crisis situations students may have,” she said.
Since 2019, Seahawk athletes have had the ability to meet with a member of the university counseling center who specializes in athletics and mental health, Dr. Cora Powers. She, along with sports dietician Jen Ketterly, are listed as the Seahawk Mental Health and Sports Performance division in the staff directory.
UNCW is one of seven Colonial Athletic Association programs, and nine Division I programs in North Carolina (out of 17), that list a psychologist or mental health professional as a member of the athletic department staff on their athletic website.
In addition, the school provides training for all staff and coaches under a program frequently used in counseling and suicide prevention called Question, Persuade, Refer. “Almost like CPR training for mental health,” Tucker said.
“I’m definitely more aware at reading cues and body language and reading moods than I was as a younger coach,” said UNCW men’s soccer coach Aidan Heaney, who’s entering his 21st season leading the Seahawks.
Heaney said the work level and goals for his players will never change. But “to take a step back and give guys some grace,” as he called it, has been a positive change.
“You want to be aware, reach out more, and be more connected with the players. I make it a point: Maybe I haven’t spoken to every player every day, but maybe 3-4 guys and get my staff to do the same. Just try to check in and be in tune with everyone.”
Continuing the conversations
When Tucker played basketball at North Carolina, she injured an ACL. It was the first time, she said, that she had physically been unable to play the game she loved, and it tore her up.
“I was told, ‘Maybe it’ll be good for you to talk to someone. Not that anything is wrong with you. Just to talk.’”
That counselor remains a friend to this day.
“I shared my story so my coaches and student-athletes know it’s OK and it can happen to anyone,” she said.
With more opportunities to speak their truth, coaches and athletes have seen more positive lines of communication open up.
“Mental health is something that people are not scared to talk about anymore,” women’s soccer coach Chris Neal said. “People can evaluate their own mental health in a non-embarrassing way. … It’s an accepted part of the conversation here now. And rightfully so.”
Said senior volleyball player Claire Sawyer: “Something that has been probably my favorite part about playing here is how close each team we’ve had has been. We make each other comfortable about talking about those bad days, and admitting to those bad days.
“It’s becoming more and more normal when you’re feeling, just, not great mentally. I’m glad it’s becoming more normal, and I think … as long as it can continue in this way, it’ll be really great for the future athletes.”
Dan Spears is the sports editor for the Wilmington StarNews, and Southeast Regional sports editor for the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at Dan.Spears@StarNewsOnline.com or on Twitter @DanSpears.
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