‘You don’t have to be sick to get better’: destigmatizing mental health in college athletics

Nakobe Dean and Maia McCoy are both SEC athletes, who have found themselves in the highly...
Nakobe Dean and Maia McCoy are both SEC athletes, who have found themselves in the highly competitive world of college sports. While they work endlessly to make their athletic goals come true, they must also face obstacles that lie beyond the stadium or field.(WLBT)
Published: Aug. 10, 2021 at 12:54 PM CDT
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - With a jewel encrusted goat on her leotard, a testament to her greatness, Simone Biles found herself at the center of the social spotlight in the past weeks. However, it was not because of her ability to defy gravity with extreme precision, rather her decision not to at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Biles quickly made headlines when it was announced that she had withdrawn from competition because of an apparent injury. However, the narrative was quickly changed when it was revealed that Biles withdrew due to mental health concerns.

Since this shocking announcement, Biles has become the most recent archetype for mental health in athletics, which has drawn attention to the fact that athletes face obstacles bigger than speed, endurance, and agility.

Biles represents greatness, and the product of a dream that many athletes aspire to add to their personal lists of career highs. The journey to this dream for many is defined by their formative years, which many experience through the world of collegiate sports.

As they train to become their own generations of Flo-Jos and Jesse Owens, college athletes carry the pressure and weight of proving their greatness to a plethora of judges and scouts, who hold their futures in their hands.

When looking at Maia McCoy’s extensive list of athletic accolades and awards, it can be inferred that the former Lady Vol was destined to make an appearance at the 2020 Olympic Trials. However the dream itself did not manifest without McCoy having to overcome hurdles outside of the Tom Black Track at LaPorte Stadium.

“I didn’t have much success my first three years, freshman through junior year,” McCoy explained.

“Those three years I started to wonder was I good enough. Was I really as fast as these other girls? Or was I just fast in high school ?”

In an anecdote she humbly recounts, McCoy was recruited by the high school track team while excelling on the basketball court.

“I was beating the seniors in the 100, next thing you know I’m running the 200. Then I’m state champion in both events. 10th-12th grade.”

McCoy’s success at Whitehaven High School landed her a spot on the Lady Vols Track and Field team, accumulating a number of honors and accolades such as Second Team All-America honors at the NCAA championship, and three SEC bronze medals to name a few.

While many have marveled at McCoy’s remarkable speed, McCoy expressed that her goal to hit the Olympic Trials standard didn’t even cross her mind until her senior year, which happened to be the year that Ken Harnden joined the Tennessee track and field staff.

“My confidence was really low,” McCoy explained. “It wasn’t until Coach Ken came to UT and he was able to really motivate me. It’s nice knowing that someone believes in you and that you are good enough.”

This newly launched confidence seemed to work on McCoy’s behalf, as she found herself running in both the women’s 100m and 200m alongside Sha’carri Richardson.

Maia McCoy at the 2020 Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Ore.
Maia McCoy at the 2020 Olympic Team Trials in Eugene, Ore.(Maia McCoy)

Had it not been for the support of her coaches and other university resources, McCoy may have missed out on a life changing achievement, not because she lacked the athletic capacity, but because of a mental block she fought valiantly to overcome.

Assistant Athletic Director of Counseling and Sports Psychology at Mississippi State University Aaron Goodson says that performance anxiety is common among athletes, and it comes from a number of different sources.

“When you’re competing in sports at this level whether it’s the professional level or the Olympic level, there’s a good amount of your identity and unfortunately sometimes your self worth wrapped up in your sports performance and involvement. ”

“An evaluation of your performance in that sport, can feel like it equates to your worth as a human being.”

Goodson and his team work to encourage more conversation around mental health concerns with athletes, and to destigmatize the topic.

One of the things that Goodson heavily stresses to his athletes is, “You don’t have to be sick to get better.”

“Coming in to have a conversation, or to check in, or to have a screening of your mental health, is just the same as having an EKG done or getting something checked on you physically.”

Goodson also stresses the idea that while he recognizes that the world of sports is a major social institution, people often lose sight of the humanity of athletes.

“These are people that are going through similar growth and development challenges,” Goodson explains. “They just happen to be really good at a sport.”

Nakobe Dean happens to be one of those people.

Dean successfully made the transition from a star at Horn Lake High School to being named the No. 1 linebacker for the 2022 NFL Draft. All while pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Georgia.

Georgia defensive back Nakobe Dean (17) against Arkansas during an NCAA college football game...
Georgia defensive back Nakobe Dean (17) against Arkansas during an NCAA college football game in Fayetteville, Ark. Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)(Michael Woods | AP)

“Of course I have dreams and aspirations to make it to the NFL,” Dean explains. “But another important goal of mine is to be the greatest version of myself. And that’s in every aspect of life.”

Dean holds himself to very high standards and pushes himself to excel further than the field.

The UGA football player stands in solidarity with Biles, believing that mental health is a very serious thing that each person should rightfully protect. However like Goodson, Dean also urges people to remember that while athletes appear to have extraordinary abilities, the problems they face are similar, if not the same as a non-athletic person.

“Anything a regular person can go through, an athlete can too, and I just feel like sometimes that is forgotten.”

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