On The Grind
Scholars and athletes break down life in the spotlight while prioritizing mental health, and how life experiences connect to academic research, teaching and in the classroom.
By Ronaldo Mata
From limbs to ligaments, athletes are always at risk of physical injury in training or competition. While trainers monitor and protect physical health, recent news headlines have highlighted why an athlete’s mental health requires the same care.
Despite some of the world’s most prominent athletes in the Olympics, NBA and NFL openly discussing personal struggles with mental health, there remains stigma – in society and among sports organizations – about prioritizing self care and mental health. An NCAA athlete and academics in the communication department with experience researching, competing and writing about sports, discuss prioritizing mental health, mentoring younger athletes, and how their personal experiences now connect to academic research, teaching and in the classroom.
As a senior journalism major, Jordan Burbank’s hands don’t just type news stories, they also block shots. On Ellis Field, Burbank is number 44 where she laces up cleats and dons padded gloves as goalkeeper for the Texas A&M women’s soccer team. Soccer is the first thing Burbank said she thinks about in the morning, and the last thing she thinks about before bed. Between those moments, managing a healthy social life, school work and being an SEC athlete, Burbank has learned how important it is to prioritize her mental health along with with peak physical conditioning.
“We’re told to prioritize our body,” Burbank said. “Our body is where we make stuff happen, because that’s pretty much how we perform. But I think a lot of people forget that we have to perform first within our head, and within our mental state, before we can physically perform and go out on the field.”
Finding balance is something fourth-year doctoral candidate Caitlin Williams considers deeply important. Before coming to Texas A&M in 2018 to pursue a Ph.D. in communication, Williams was a collegiate soccer player at Georgetown College in Kentucky. While discipline is an important virtue, Williams said she believes that no success comes from discipline alone.
“If you think of sport as like a wheel or a food pyramid, you can’t survive just off discipline, and it’s going to start becoming a chore almost,” Williams explained. “I didn’t even want to say a job, because jobs can be fun. But it just becomes a chore, almost an obligation, or you start convincing yourself you need to do it rather than something you get to do or you’re looking forward to doing.”
Williams describes her doctoral research as building on feminist and cultural theories. She explores how socio-historical shifts in discourses affect policies in organizations to create new understandings about bodies and human interactions. In addition to research, Williams has taught COMM classes in sports communication and public speaking. Williams still competes, finishing the 70.3 Ironman World Championship in September in St. George, Utah.
Mind Over Grind
While Burbank said she takes pride in “being on the grind” – her term for hustling to fully engage in soccer and in school – COMM doctoral candidate Alan Grant said he wants all young athletes to be aware of how harmful “hustle culture” can be on a sport-to-sport basis. Grant is a former ESPN magazine writer and a former NFL player. While not inherently wrong, Grant cautions that becoming immersed and submerged within the demanding world of sports can wear on an athlete’s psyche. Take gymnastics, for example, noted Grant.
“Not only do you have to vault higher than anybody else, you have to walk across this tiny beam,” said Grant. “You have to do so and look perfect. Your form must be perfect. You must be perfect. I think just that – that expectation – that unquestioned expectation of perfection, that’s insane. That’s horrible.”
The social status and the money it is possible to earn holds professional athletes to a higher standard – an unfair standard – that is placed on both physical and psychological performance, said Chante Anderson, Ph.D., and lecturer in the department of communication.
“First and foremost – as humans – you know and I know [athletes] experience problems like the rest of us,” said Anderson. “They shouldn’t be looked at differently because they are athletes. Money is not the great elixir.”
Anderson’s extensive research is in the representation of the athletic Black body, and how the Black male body is portrayed in new media and traditional media.
Mantras like Kobe Bryant’s “mamba mentality” romanticize an athlete’s total dedication to improving in their sport. While the mantra has no ill will, Williams noted those sorts of mindset are complex, especially for young athletes.
“Mamba mentality can be so great,” Williams said, “if your child wants that. But if you’re having to drag your kid out the door every morning and you’re screaming ‘Mamba mentality!’ at them, that’s not going to be helpful.”
Williams suggests constantly checking in on young athletes to ensure they are performing under the best conditions.
“Asking kids along the way that question like ‘What does this [sport] mean to you?’” is important, said Williams. “When do you feel strong? When you feel good and proud of yourself? And when do you feel frustrated?”
“And then – how do you handle that?” are all questions Williams said are important for young athletes – and their parents and coaches – to ask and answer.
After the Crowd Falls Silent
Leaving the athletic life behind is a psychological issue all athletes face sometime. For some, it’s simply a matter of being tired of the sport. For others, it’s the end of an entire way of life.
Grant said his career in journalism began soon after he left the NFL. He has worked with the NFL since as an instructor at the NFL’s journalism bootcamp, teaching prospective journalists the ins and outs of the sports media industry and preparing them for a life off the gridiron.
“Once people recognize you as being a really good athlete as a youngster, it’s accompanied by that chorus of, well … you know you can’t play sports your whole life,” said Grant. “You gotta be able to do other things.”
The disconnect is that many athletes encounter resistance when they try to follow the advice and embrace a new path, said Grant.
“Those same people who told you that you can’t be an athlete your whole life are often the first to offer resistance,” explained Grant. Some simply can’t embrace a former athlete who has chosen a new path.
“My entire writing career has been hindered by people who could not, or would not, embrace a former football player as someone who creates original narratives,” Grant said. He noted this was the theme of his first OpEd published in the Stanford Alumni magazine in 1997.
Social Media, Toxic Fans
The mental health of athletes is not about the Xs and Os. Life suddenly lived in a national collegiate or pro spotlight can be a vastly different place from where the athlete was before. While Burbank said TikTok is an escape for her, social media can be a seriously unsound place for some of the world’s premier athletes. Fans can use social media in toxic and very public ways to criticize athletes.
“You can hide behind a lot, because it’s kind of like complete anonymity,” said Anderson. “There’s not a face associated with that background or history of the individual that’s having these verbal attacks against these athletes.”
Women athletes deal with the mental toll of having their body be a subject of conversation, sexualization and critique. Growing up, Williams said she heard many comments about her body, often gendered and polarizing. In one way or another, those comments would tie back to the male body, she explained.
As Williams was beginning her research, she learned about the experience of South African track and field runner Castor Semenya who was born intersex. Semenya was forced to compete in some events as a woman, and others as a man. Williams said these kinds of experiences can have a lasting impact on an athlete’s mental health and how they see their own bodies.
In 2020, the World Rugby Union banned transgender athletes. Williams said she began interviewing female rugby players to learn how the sport and the policy changes shaped athlete’s bodies. The process of sex testing – a series of scientific tests used to determine a player’s gender – is a policy Williams said she researched.
“If they do not meet certain qualifications to continue competing in their gender, there’s huge ramifications,” Williams explained. “A lot of women don’t even ever talk that out, about how that happened. And they have been told to say that they’re injured instead, and just kind of disappear from the sport.” Williams said there have been reports of athletes who have considered suicide after being told by an athletic organization that they are “not women.”
New Paths, New Adventures
“Even as a senior,” said Burbank, “I’m still trying to learn the balance. But it’s something that we are learning every single day. How to remember that ‘being Jordan’ and ‘being number 44 on the field’ are two completely different people.”
Both Williams and Burbank described the end of their soccer careers as a painful separation – not just from their sport – but from their team. Burbank said Texas A&M Athletics has psychologists who provide grief counseling for athletes ending their careers.
While Williams and Grant are each pursuing new paths in academia and research, Anderson is an award-winning communication lecturer who joined the department in 2016 and completed the Ph.D. program in August. As role models and mentors, all of their teaching and research will inform new ways to help athletes – as well as parents, coaches and fans – prioritize mental health.