By Trish Arab
How often do we hear someone refer to the "mental game" of sports? Usually, it's used as an excuse when a favourite team or player isn't performing to their best ability as we know and expect them. "They're too much in their heads" or "They've got to get out of their heads and just play" are everyday things I hear throughout the various sports seasons.
The mental game concept has changed quite a bit over the past few years, with athletes citing their mental health as taking priority over their obligations or desires to play.
In May of 2021, tennis phenom Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open because of anxiety, instantaneously garnering support and criticism. The most decorated Olympian in history, swimmer Michael Phelps has spoken openly about his struggles with his mental health, as have NBA stars Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan. Serena Williams is another who has sometimes stepped away from the game to keep her mental health a priority and works tirelessly to normalize this conversation for young athletes especially when it comes to high functioning depression, which most professional athletes are, with even those closest to them not aware of the pressure they are feeling, or the depth of it.
Mental health and sports appeared regularly on our show, "The Tidal League Podcast," especially in interviews with athletes during the pandemic.
How many athletes have stepped away before their careers have even started? I'm sure we will never know the exact number, but recently the New York Times featured an article on Tyrell Terry, a professional basketball player many thought would be the next Steph Curry. At age 19, Terry debuted at Stanford University, scoring 13 points in his first game and displaying the same precision-like accuracy as Curry and Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks. Knowing that Staford planned to welcome a top recruit in Zaire Williamson the following year and that, most likely, his play time would be significantly cut, Terry made what would come to be the unwise decision to enter the NBA early. Working himself to the bone to prepare for the 2020 Draft Combine. In hindsight, Tyrell knows he was probably too young and immature to enter the NBA, and when he was drafted to the Dallas Mavericks 31st overall, being on a team with experienced vets and a strong support system still did nothing for him or his mental health. When people looked at him, they saw Tyrell Terry stats, not Tyrell Terry the person. He felt a huge void envelop him so made a extremely tough choice.
After playing only 11 games in the NBA, Tyrell Terry left the dream so many people spend their whole lives trying to accomplish, a decision he still has no regrets over.
How could things have been different for Terry and other professional athletes who feel they have no other option but to leave sports to care for their mental health? Can professional sports do more to support these young athletes? Is it their place too? How many accommodations are we expected to make when others don't need them to succeed?
Perhaps it's a bit too early to discuss proactive changes when just discussion of mental health is so relatively new in sports, but like other societal issues, we as sports fans should be more vocal and supportive of, demanding our favourite athletes take care of their mental health in the same way we require they take care of their physical health, doesn't seem so far fetched.
How many greats have we missed out on or lost because we weren't brave enough to accept?