The mental game: The battles I faced throughout college basketball
October 28, 2020
Content warning: This article mentions suicide.
This past May, I should have been in a great mindset: Northwestern finished the season ranked 11th in the AP poll, I earned All-Big 10 Honorable Mention and I just signed with an agent overseas. It looked like my dream of playing professional basketball was coming true.
But May was the first full month of quarantine, and it also happened to be Mental Health Awareness month.
I realized that throughout my college experience, I’d hid many sleepless nights and therapy sessions from my loved ones. My mental health felt like something I should keep to myself — I didn’t need to talk about it.
But, I want to tell every college student-athlete that it’s socially acceptable to take care of your mental health. I’m hopeful that in the coming years, student-athletes can freely talk about mental wellness in the training room and locker room — kind of like how we check on teammates when they are rehabbing from injuries.
However, as I mentioned, I didn’t do that either. So I’m going to open up a little bit now.
I want to point out that I love NU and the mental health resources were always abundant. Whenever I did ask for help, my coaches, administrators, teammates and family were there for me.
But most of the time, I didn’t ask for any help. Here’s some of what I wish I could have told myself through the years.
Dear Freshman Wolf: Think less and sleep more. You do not have to be perfect.
Sept. 20, 2016 — At a preseason conditioning workout freshman year
I had a morning workout full of sprints to conquer before the first day of classes. I tried not to be scared, even though I knew it would be exhausting. (Just a few days prior, we’d made it through a seemingly impossible stairs workout in the football stadium, and I didn’t think it could get much worse than that.)
But I was running on less than four hours of sleep per night for the past five days. NU’s freshman orientation, with endless introductions and emotionally draining presentations, was just too much stimulus for my new-to-college brain.
Throughout the week, I’d convinced myself I could accomplish what I needed to if I just focused on the task ahead — but just one set of stairs, five squats, even things like packing my backpack for the day took extra focus. I felt energized by this strategy, but at the same time frazzled.
At some point during the sprints, one of the seniors tried to stop me from running. It turns out I started for an extra sprint when I was supposed to be resting. She could see something was wrong. I pushed her out of the way and kept going. Surprised at myself for this moment of aggression, I decided I needed some space.
My heart rate and mind racing, I walked through the men’s basketball practice on the other court. I must have looked like a madwoman because I recall one of the guys asking if I was OK as I jogged through him and his rebounder.
I finally got to the locker room and didn’t know what to do. Run away to my dorm? Just sit in front of my locker and cry? No, better to keep moving. Just like normal, I hopped in the shower and relaxed a bit as hot water soothed my tense muscles.
Eventually, my athletic trainer and assistant coach came to find me. It took some convincing for me to get out of the shower. They dressed me as I spoke gibberish.
“You can come out now,” I remember screaming with conviction — I thought my team had finished the conditioning session and was hiding behind the locker room door. It turned out I was hallucinating due to sleep deprivation.
The rest of the day was a blur. I remember being escorted out of the arena with my concerned coach and trainer holding me. Next thing I knew, I woke up in NorthShore Hospital with a nurse asking if I knew my name and the date.
I regularly saw a therapist over the next few months. Life resumed as normal. The event was just a little hiccup, I thought.
I now know it was much more than a hiccup. If I didn’t have unrealistic expectations to be a freshman standout player and remember every new name and place from orientation, maybe I could have relaxed a bit. My perfectionist mentality would continue to paralyze me in the years to come. After the mandatory therapy sessions, I didn’t reschedule and I didn’t bring up the incident with my teammates.
Jan. 9, 2017 — The day Jordan Hankins died by suicide
My teammate Jordan Hankins didn’t show up to our Sociology 110 class in the beginning of winter quarter. I assumed she was skipping. We had just hung out on Saturday night in the residence hall after we got back from our Maryland road trip, so I had no doubt she’d be at practice later that day. But then at the end of practice, we gathered in our film room and found out she had died by suicide. Our team met in an upperclassmen’s apartment that night and we all tried to comfort each other while a romantic comedy played in the background.
I was in shock. To me, she was the life of the party, always cracking jokes and shining that bright smile of hers out to the world.
Eventually we all returned to classes and started practice again. For our first game back against Indiana, the NU community showed their support for us by filling both student sections. Most of the students and coaches in the stands wore a white shirts that said Fly High J on the back above her number, 5. We played raw and emotionally, beating the Hoosiers 80-67. We knew J would be proud.
Dear Sophomore Wolf: Don’t force it. Your self worth is more than your playing time.
Dec. 10, 2017 — A missed lay-up and airballed free throw in a blowout game against Stony Brook.
I sat on left bench tapping my foot nervously in the second half of the Stony Brook game. We were up by 21 points entering the 4th quarter, so I was pretty sure my coach planned on throwing me in. I felt so ready to prove everyone wrong through a breakout performance. But my confidence was at an all-time low since the last game versus mid-major Milwaukee, where I didn’t get any time on the floor and we lost by 9 points. I had felt like a cheerleader faking a smile on the sidelines. For goodness’ sake, I had a full scholarship offer from defending national champion South Carolina. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I wasn’t even given the opportunity to help my team beat Milwaukee.
During the Stony Brook game, I was stuck in my own head — so inwardly focused I couldn’t understand that there were two more experienced players playing in front of me. So hungry for success, I couldn’t relax and stop counting the minutes on the bench.
With about eight minutes left, my coach finally called my name and I jumped out of my seat.
Then I blew it. A minute or two on the court, I missed a wide-open lay-up on a fastbreak. I told myself I was still cold — onto the next play. A couple minutes went by, and I took a contested lay-up. I missed again, but I got fouled.
I kind of winced when the whistle blew. I just missed two lay-ups and now I need the mental capacity to make free throws? Any basketball player knows that as soon as you don’t want to go to the line, you have an issue.
The first one, jaw clenched and heart still racing from when my coach called my name, I completely missed the rim. When the referee passed me the ball for the second try, I just prayed to the basketball gods not to be embarrassed again. I didn’t make it but just nicked the rim.
The rest of that season, I went 13 for 25 from the line, just over 50 percent. To put things in perspective, I shot over 90 percent from the line in my senior year of high school, and if my form feels good in practice, I can make five in a row with my eyes closed.
Anxiety feels like the making a free throw. When I don’t overthink my form or remember that the whole arena is watching me, it’s automatic. But as soon as doubt starts creeping into my mind, it’s tough to ignore. Punishing or overtraining myself doesn’t usually work. It takes a strong sense of in-game confidence for it to go away.
If I could go back in time, I would tell myself to take a deep breath and mentally transport myself to the line at my hometown YMCA — no punishment, no disappointed coach on the sideline, no eyeballs watching me in the stands — just a kid who loves the game. All that external validation should never have contributed to my self worth.
No eyeballs watching me or statistics after the game should ever have contributed to my self worth.
Dear Junior Wolf: Be a little vulnerable, you don’t need to hide.
Oct.16, 2018 — A yoga session in the middle of preseason.
October is the toughest stretch for college basketball players because there are no game days in sight, but many lifts and conditioning sessions. Of course, that’s on top of two-hour practices and class.
But we generally Wednesdays had off — just an optional yoga session for recovery. I would come straight from class into the studio ready to destress, but more importantly to loosen my tight hamstrings and glutes.
All was going well. We neared the end of the session and went into some kind of back twist. Something popped and then a pain shot up my left back. I finished the last few minutes of poses silently crying, trying not to disturb the peace or draw attention to myself.
I just felt so helpless. Something that was supposed to help me just hurt me more. We all said namaste and I limped out of the room with my head down.
I made my way to the training room in Walter Athletics Center. My athletic trainer saw I was visibly upset and calmed me with a quick examination, telling me it was just a pinched nerve. It really was no big deal, since I’m pretty sure I played in practice the next day.
But in the moment, I was still agitated and worried about my back as I walked to my car next to the lacrosse field. Not quite ready to face homework, I decided to go for a walk on the Lakefill.
A few minutes in and I saw a big rock next to the lake painted all black with white letters. “Fly High J. 1997-2017.” I don’t remember the exact wording, but I knew it was Jordan Hankins’ rock. I have no idea who painted it, but I completely broke down at the sight of it. I sat on the black paint and cried for around 10 minutes. I wondered how many times J felt isolated and stressed to her bones.
I kept feeling sorry for myself for another few minutes before realizing I needed to do something. I texted one of my teammates and said, “I’m not okay, can you meet me at the Lakefill?”
I don’t actually remember what we talked about, but texting this teammate was a big deal to me. I usually don’t want people to feel sorry for me, so up until then, I had only talked about my negative emotions to my therapist or close friends when it fit into conversation.
Just a few minutes after talking to my friend on the lake, I settled down and was able to carry on with my day. I realized a little vulnerability could soothe my mind and heart.
Dear Senior Wolf: Focus on the present moment. The greatest master the mind.
I always dreamed of playing professional basketball in Europe. But my senior fall, I decided I needed to have a back-up plan in case my final college season turned out to be a flop. So, I started going to management consulting info sessions. I found myself rushing out of practice and putting on business casual outfits rather than enjoying post-practice meals with my teammates in sweats.
My athletic performance suffered. In team huddles I would drift off thinking about the next info session or thank you email to send. On the court, I missed shots a veteran should not. I started thinking the worst that I would lose the starting spot, So I decided I needed to make a change — no more consulting or other job applications. I only had one college basketball season left with my best friends.
Jan. 12, 2020 — A pregame nap in Welsh-Ryan Arena.
For home games, we have about two hours between our pregame meal and on court warm-ups. I felt especially sleepy, so I went into the recovery room to rest. As soon as I settled, I opened up the meditation and sleep app Calm — but I didn’t want to hear the usual sleep story I had started listening to the previous summer. I went to the meditation tab and saw a thing called a “body scan.” I only had about 30 minutes before I had to suit up, so that’s what I selected.
A combination of muscle relaxation and short spurts of sleep followed. The birds started chirping in the app and I got up feeling refreshed. Feeling good, I had someone braid my hair instead of the usual ponytail.
That game, I had a career high with 24 points, 11 rebounds and 5 blocks. I went 6 of 8 from the free throw line, a long way from that airball sophomore year.
The whole day felt magical. From then on, I added the body scan to my pregame routine. I ditched the braid, but this practice of mindfulness will stay with me the rest of my life. Centering myself through meditation gives me a sense of control in my attitude and reaction to all that comes my way.
I’m not saying meditation will make everyone play better. If I meditated freshman and sophomore year, I’m sure I’d still be on the bench because my physical strength and post skillset just wasn’t there.
But I know there’s a reason the new Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren established a 31-member cabinet to promote optimal mental health for student-athletes. I also know coming to terms with my performance anxiety and learning to use my support network proved to be a game changer.
The Big Ten now sponsors the Calm app for all student-athletes. When I got that push notification from ESPN with the news, I felt so validated in what I learned throughout my journey, maybe even a little ahead of the game.
The Calm App and Northwestern’s #BandTogetherNU campaign are small steps toward destigmatizing mental health. It took me four years and a journalism major to tell my story.
When I think about the stigma of mental health in college athletics, one encounter comes to mind. After one of my CAPS sessions, I remember running into a football player outside of the health services building. We made friendly conversation and he asked me what I was doing at Searle. I told him I just had an X-ray for my knee.
“Typical basketball thing,” I thought. He’d never suspect I just walked down the stairs from CAPS. I didn’t even realize this white lie of mine represented the mental health stigma in college athletics. If I could go back in time, I would say, “I just got out of therapy, how about you?”
— Wildcats in Europe: Abbie Wolf and Pallas Kunaiyi-Akpanah talk about the transition to basketball in a new continent
— In Focus: Student-athletes face unique mental health challenges, work to overcome stigma of getting help
— Women’s Basketball: Northwestern honors Jordan Hankins in win over Indiana