Kelsey Thoensen: I coach the human being behind the uniform

These last couple of months have left the student-athlete population with heavy hearts. How many athletes does it take for something to change? With the alarming number of student-athletes who have recently died by suicide and in honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought it was time to stop being silent and share my personal experience with my mental health as a student-athlete.

This month is about getting rid of the stigma surrounding mental health. I want to share my story and help normalize the conversation. My hope is that student-athletes can feel more comfortable asking for help when they’re struggling. There have been WAY too many student athletes struggling in silence. We need to normalize the conversation. We need to do better.

When I say I spent my entire life getting to know myself through the sole identity of “competitive” or “athlete,” I mean that. I attended Pre-K at the local YMCA at just 3 years old and then through my childhood years I started playing soccer, started taking dance lessons, performing in recitals, and started playing piano as well. I loved competition more than anything and I was only in grade school. As I look back on my childhood, I was always hard on myself and always pushed myself to be the absolute best at everything I did. 

As I grew up and went through middle and high school, I started playing field hockey, ran cross country and track, and then began competitively playing lacrosse year-round in hopes of getting recruited to play NCAA lacrosse one day. I felt like I was on top of the world throughout high school. I was successful in my sports, had a lot of friends, and committed to play DII lacrosse. 

Although I was high on life, the major caveat was that I let my success define my worth from the time I was a little girl. I only valued my self-worth if I was scoring goals or breaking records. 


TW: mentions of suicide

I was always scared to talk to people about these alarming thoughts inside my head. I didn’t want to be a burden to anyone, and I certainly didn’t want them to think there was something wrong with me. I constantly felt like my feelings were too much for anyone else to handle, so I wouldn’t go to anyone for help. I would talk to the people closest to me if I was feeling down, but I would hide a lot of things too. I would always deny thoughts of suicide when deep down, some days I felt extremely sad for no reason and didn’t want to be here. 

As a student-athlete struggling with anxiety and depression, you start to feel so alone. For example, I chose to go to school five hours from home, so I couldn’t just go home when I felt like I needed it. You already have a jam-packed schedule as a student-athlete, so it’s hard to find time to go home to see your family unless you see them at your games. When you need support, it can be really hard to ask for help. I didn’t feel like struggling with depression was something I could walk into the locker room and talk about while everyone was trying to get hype and get their mind right before they stepped out onto the field. I knew a lot of my teammates had tough class schedules or had other things going on, so I was also scared to be a burden and put more on someone’s plate by asking for help about how I was feeling. 

At the beginning of my senior season, I started to have severe hip pain. I have had aches and pains a lot throughout my playing career, so I tried my hardest to tough it out. After all, that’s what athletes are supposed to do. I eventually had an MRI and it was confirmed that I had a femoral neck stress fracture. I remember just crying and crying and crying. Everything I had worked for seemed to suddenly vanish. I lost sight of everything good in my life except for the negative thoughts surrounding this injury. That’s what depression will do to you. I thought I was no longer valued on my team and I honestly had no idea how I was supposed to stand on the sideline my senior year and be the injured kid. I was already an athlete that struggled with depression, and now I was supposed to be the injured player on the sidelines?! I felt like I could no longer give everything I had to the game I love. Now my focus had to be on recovery instead of competition. I had no idea how to do that. I would act fine on the sidelines during games, but then go home and cry myself to sleep.


One day, one of my best friends attempted suicide. I was terrified to grieve the loss of one of my best friends all while I was struggling in silence with my crippling depression. This taught me how serious mental health is; that it’s not something to joke about or hide from anyone. This is real, scary stuff and it could happen to anyone.

A little while later, I developed skin cancer on my shoulder. I ended up being home because I now had to have minor surgery on my shoulder to remove the cancer. I didn’t think I could handle anything else happening to me. And then a little while after my surgery, my family got a call that we had to come visit my grandmother immediately because she was having a bad day and they didn’t know how much longer we would have with her. Because I was home, I got to lay with my Grandma as she passed away that day. She died on the 17th and 17 was my college  lacrosse number. She was my best friend growing up, so this was a tough loss for me to go through on top of everything that was already happening. 

I eventually got cleared to start rehabbing my hip again, but I remember constantly feeling like I needed to get better mentally before I would ever be able to heal physically. I wrestled with the thought of quitting lacrosse often, but I knew that I was mentally tough and I knew that I didn’t want to be a quitter. After struggling through my mental health battle, I made the tough decision to walk away from the sport I love. I decided to quit lacrosse and focus on my mental health. I needed time to healthily process all the thoughts and emotions from the events of the last six months and to focus on myself. I didn’t take any time to heal or process anything. I spent my entire life battling through the pain because that’s what I thought athletes were trained to do. It all caught up to me at once. 

My college graduation year was the same year that the pandemic COVID-19 took over. Our campus sent students home early, I lost my internship, and I did not get to walk at my graduation. Once again, it felt like everything I worked for had been stripped away. As I was home for a while applying for jobs and going in and out of quarantine, I started to feel super anxious and depressed again. I finally decided that I needed to do something about the way I had been feeling for so long. I chose to take a break from the job search and started attending an intensive outpatient therapy program three times a week.

It took everything in me to be honest with someone and to fully open up about my story and what I was going through and struggling with. But, it also felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I ended up staying in the intensive outpatient program for four months followed by two months of general outpatient therapy. Deciding to get help saved my life and taught me so much about myself, how to deal with my emotions, and how to communicate with others about my struggles. I once saw myself as a quitter, but I now see myself as brave. It was brave to put myself first. It was brave to take my mental health seriously and get help. I want to show people that they can go through absolutely anything and still make it out on the other side –and even better than when they started. I want them to know that they aren’t alone in their struggles. These thoughts don’t have to live in your head, it’s okay to tell people what you’re going through and that you’re hurting.

I struggled a lot with the fact that I would never play lacrosse competitively again and wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the game just yet. Now that I have gone through all of this, I want to lead by example and help other athletes overcome their mental health struggles. I fell in love with coaching and the leadership platform that it provides me to help other athletes daily. My goal as a coach now is to focus on the person before the athlete. I know what it’s like to be an anxious and depressed college athlete. I know how it feels to try and push through the pain –both physically and mentally. I coach the human being behind the uniform, not just the athlete producing statistics for me and my team. I’ve learned THAT is what makes kids want to work hard for you and THAT is what will win games. 

I was extremely lucky to have supportive coaches and athletic trainers during my time at Slippery Rock. They would check in on us and provide mental health resources often. I could talk to my coaches about anything I needed. I know now that I was extremely lucky to have a staff that cared about me as a person and not just an athlete. Not enough institutions have that for their athletes.

We as student-athletes, coaches, teammates, trainers, staff, and faculty NEED to continue to put the person before the athlete. We need to build relationships with one another and always be checking in on each other. Student-athletes have A LOT going on in their lives, so we need to be the leader and safe space they need after a tough day. When you’re a student-athlete, you feel pressured to perform perfectly in the classroom and perfectly on the field. It is our job as leaders to help them achieve this goal as stress-free as possible.

If it weren’t for my caring and understanding coaches, family, and friends encouraging me in my battle with my mental health, I would have probably never gone to get help. They exhibited such amazing leadership and always provided me with support no matter what. It is important that student-athletes have a safe and welcoming environment to talk to someone when they need it. It’s not easy to ask for help. I am begging you to cherish the mental health of student athletes and to always be their ally.

“Leadership is about making others better as the result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” -Sheryl Sanberg

If you or someone you know is considering suicide and need help, quick resources can be found at suicidepreventionlifeline.org

It is important to remember that you do not always know the extent of what someone is going through. Even though they may be excelling in the classroom or in athletics, it does NOT mean they aren’t struggling.


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