Written by Skyler Hancock
Published by Ben Ruvo
Skyler Hancock, Washington College ’22
For years, I have contemplated putting in writing what has happened to me in my mental health journey and its effects on my athletic career.
I’ve been a competitive person since I was a child. In the beginning of my athletic career, I spent my time as a football cheerleader, this didn’t last that long. My father got into my head and told me that when I was older, I could play field hockey and break collarbones. When I was in 3rd grade, my school offered field hockey as part of our youth athletic association. And it was that same year in school I remember my ongoing battle with an anxiety disorder and depression. The depression set in due to losing a lot of my loved ones at a young age. I felt like everyone I loved just died. Growing up, I never really fit in, although I was a heavily involved kid. The anxiety disorder developed from multiple sources looking back; the earliest was an irrational phobia known as emetophobia, or simply put, the fear of vomiting. This became a disabling condition for me. I was always anxious in school because I thought that at any minute someone could just throw up in class. I remember being terrified throwing away garbage at lunch because I was afraid that the kid behind me would throw up. While this phobia consumed my school days there wasn’t an escape when I got on the field. This phobia truly became a real burden when it came to athletics, as with exercise came the chance of becoming sick during practice. Most nights I couldn’t fall asleep as traumatic memories of people becoming sick would haunt me as they played on a cycle. Sadly, this phobia allowed a transition to a full blown panic and anxiety disorder. Another source of anxiety and depression was from bullying during my middle school and high school years. As well as an underlying learning disability that my parents were aware I definitely had since elementary school. However, they didn’t want to put something in place thinking it would be a crutch or affect how well I was already doing in school, which caused more anxiety as schooling became more challenging.
Even through my phobia, depression and disorder, I was known as a field hockey player. I played field hockey for ten years at almost all the positions except goalie. I was never really that well because I was always involved in curricular activities, so I didn’t play indoors, which heavily disadvantaged me. I always believed that if I could survive pre-season workouts I could survive anything. My depression and anxiety were arguably at their worst during my freshman year of high school and the last few weeks of my senior year. During my freshman year, I felt like I only had one friend who turned out to be a really toxic person who made my depression and anxiety so much worse. In athletics, it made me play games with myself mentally; if I made a good shot, then my friend was going to be okay or that I was going to be okay and other things. The depression and anxiety heavily affected my life as a student athlete. As I was always better at the student part, which was why I didn’t have many friends as my nose was always in a book. Many people didn’t see my mental health hurting me as much as it was; my grades were all I could hang onto as an identity and, of course, they couldn’t see what was behind closed doors. The transition from middle school to high school made me lose friends as I didn’t follow the same trends or interests as my friend group did. I had never felt so invisible as days in which they would tell me stuff like “oh you should have been at the lunch table today because we talked about X, Y, and Z”, when I was sitting right next to them.
As I previously mentioned I felt like I only had one friend. And it was that very friendship that became the push that led me into the worst days of my life. The friendship led to my self harming, as well as stress dieting to a point where I became borderline anorexic. He used to eat all of my food during lunch. One of the lowest points was when he told me that he no longer cared about me, and in the dark place that I had begun to live in pushed me to no longer wanting to live. Second semester of my freshman year, I decided that I was going to kill myself, the same night there was a massive blizzard occurring outside in hopes that if I began to die no one could save me or take me to the ER. But minutes later, I realized that I had made a mistake, and tried to make myself throw up (which is really hard mind you when you have an irrational fear of throwing up). I remember waking my parents up and telling them what I had done. They drove me to the ER, since they are in the medical field they have a pass during weather advisories. I bring up this part of my story because in that one plus hour drive to the ER in a blizzard it forced me to have to open up to my parents about everything that was going on, as I had hid the scars on my arms as well from them. And during that drive, I felt like I had a massive weight taken off of my body. I was hospitalized for a few hours because of my suicide attempt. I actually fought the system not to have to go to an intensive outpatient facility because if they would have taken school away from me it would have made everything so much worse, and surprisingly, I didn’t miss any school days that year. When the hospitalization made me go through therapy, my therapist gave up on me after three visits and appeared to actually care more about my friend I spoke about during my session than me. For some reason I still kept him really close to me despite how dangerous he was to my well-being. It wasn’t until weeks before graduation our senior year that that changed.
Senior year of high school, a lot of growth had to happen to me on and off the field. We were promised my senior year that no seniors would get cut from our Field Hockey team. At the end of tryout week, I received the fateful news that I could stay on the team with limited to no playing time or leave the team and join the cross country team. I remembered being so heartbroken and was so upset that as a punishment, I ran three miles to my best friend since elementary school’s house and just cried on her shoulder. Although she was one of the stars of the cross country team and would have loved to have me join her, I stayed on the team because I wanted to have the validation of getting my varsity letter. I have to say that I only played for less than five minutes in our senior night game, which we ended up losing, even though at the beginning of the season, we beat that team 9-0. I felt like it was all my fault because everyone was crying, and we had no idea if we were going to districts or not. But unlike some of my teammates that night, I knew that I wasn’t planning on playing field hockey in college.
At the end of my senior year, I hit another rock bottom after I had lost all my friends. This was because four weeks before graduation my toxic friend got me caught up in lies that turned everyone against me. I had absolutely no one, and everyone who used to be my friends turned against me, and even outside people threatened me. But I stayed true to myself and I didn’t drag anyone into what happened to my ex-best friend and me. I was fearful of going to school as he and others would go out of their way to hip-check me. I was severely depressed, unable to focus on my studies, graduation or enjoy the possibility of prom. The weekend that the entire event happened between me and my ex-best friend, I was visiting Ithaca College, the other college I thought about attending. I guess he did something right because I had the worst experience visiting on Admitted students day. My parents had to actually sit me down and tell me how bad it was, which made it alot easier for me to decide on which college to attend.
It was on my first visit to Washington College where my journey of becoming a college athlete began. When I visited Washington College for the first time on February 10, 2018, my parents and I met a rower, and it was that moment that my dad decided that wherever I went to college, he was going to get me to row. Months later, he finally broke me down, and I signed up to walk on to the rowing team at summer advising day. The summer before college, I finally got real medical help and prescribed medication that has helped me a lot and has allowed me to advocate for myself with what is working or not. My freshman year of college had its highs and lows. After those six weeks of learning to row, I knew that I found my home. I never felt like I belonged on a team for 13 years of my athletic career, but with the rowing team, I knew I belonged. And I haven’t looked back much, even though I did manage to get a few care reports and had friends push me into getting some therapy. When I started my varsity season in the spring of 2019, I practiced for the first four practices, got sick, missed four practices, came back practiced three days, and on that third day, I partially dislocated my rotator cuff in our lift. This made my first varsity season so much harder as I never had a debilitating injury affect my ability to participate in sports. Since it was an injury with my shoulder joint, the pain continued even after it healed because I continue to hold my stress and anxiety in my shoulders. While the injury made me have to start from square one, I learned a lot from it, and it put a fire inside of me where I did get to race for the first time during our Mid-Atlantic Rowing Championships. While I didn’t get to compete with my teammates and best friends at NCAA Championships, I was still so proud to be a part of the team and yell at my computer watching them race. But having to leave my newfound family of teammates as they continued NCAA training for the rest of May was really hard for me mentally. I was severely depressed when I came home, and it took a while until I got out of the funk to get back to maintaining my physical abilities and staying in shape during the summer.
In my sophomore year, I have been doing better and have begun trying to open up a discussion about mental health for my team. I’ve become more aware that I may have OCD, especially thanks to the first OpenMindGymm event at WAC. However, I am still in the battling part of my mental health journey. I came back for my fall semester and still had to relearn my rowing as I believed that with my injury, I could only row one side, but it was actually just in my mind. I got to race both sides and had one of my best races on Boathouse Row. I had a great fall season with some minor issues with my shoulders, but I persevered through some of my worst days. With my spring season, I dislocated my shoulder again right before our season started and got cleared to row the day before the season began.
I bring up the injuries because my mental health journey has impacted me as a college athlete; I have to be really careful and take care of myself. This is because if I let myself get worn down due to stress, as well as making myself sick, I am more prone to injury. I would like to note that I am accident prone, to begin with. I dislocated my shoulder the first and second time due to stress as well as a major ankle sprain, which isn’t healing as well because of me hiding the injury out of fear of missing out as I previously have. But I will not stop the grind and push, I have done a lot of personal bests on days when I shouldn’t have. My mental health journey has taught me a lot about when to stop and how much more I can physically push myself. My journey has also allowed me to realize when my pain and barriers in my sport are in my head. My journey has also impacted me as a college athlete as it has allowed me to open up to teammates and no longer repress when things are wrong. I have also been able to take freshmen and novices under my wing and helped them by knowing they are not alone as well as that as a team; we care about each other. This has helped me a lot because I got to witness my teammate praising me to a recruit, and it made me feel good. But my mental health journey has also negatively impacted me as a college athlete as I am an empath, and I sometimes end up carrying my teammates’ struggles with me, which weighs heavily on me and makes me jeopardize my health. The spring competition season began really great. I got a personal record on one of our erg tests on the second day of the season. It was exciting because the trainers weren’t really expecting me to be able to row. This season I have improved so much. I was so close to getting to race at NCAAs with my teammates before the epidemic occurred. But we, as a team, have continued to workout in the adapted new season of competition. And that’s where my story leaves off, although this pandemic has not helped my mental health, talking about helps.
The number one reason I believe that it is so hard for athletes to open up and talk with their coaches is the fear of being kicked off the team. For every athlete being called to the coaches’ office is as worrisome as being called to the principal’s office in school. For many student-athletes, athletics is the one thing that has always been there for them and is a part of their identity. This leads to athletes being afraid that by speaking up about their mental health or even what they are going through, they could have a part of them taken away. But I think it’s really critical sometimes to tell a coach that something is wrong with a teammate, and not to get mad if someone does that for you because it means they really care about you. I believe it’s hard for athletes to open up and talk with their teammates about what they are going through because we are afraid of being seen as a weak link on the team. We believe that because of what we are going through that we are letting the team down. Especially in rowing, we have to act as one being in the boat together and if one person is off, you can feel it. Personally, I had issues talking to my teammates that I lived with because I was afraid of being seen as broken or a mess. I felt ashamed by my current situation and fearful that I would be letting them down. You may also feel like you can’t talk about it because you have to put on a brave face for the team. Some of us with mental health conditions have had issues with the current Covid-19 epidemic ending and cutting our seasons short.
We, as a society, need to open up the discussion about mental health being a 5 in 5 battle. We need to talk about what these disorders are and that you are not alone in the battle. We need to talk about the stereotypes and get rid of media that endorse these stereotypes. It sickens me to see people make games out of illness such as OCD and make shirts that say eat less.
We need to: talk openly about mental health, educate ourselves and others, be conscious of language, encourage equality between physical and mental illness, show compassion for those with mental illness, choose empowerment over shame, be honest about treatment, let the media know when they’re being stigmatizing, and to not harbor self-stigma.
We need to have a more open discussion about mental health for everyone to address the issue. Coaches really need to try to gently push their athletes into attending mental health discussions and push them to take steps to better take care of their mental and physical well being. In an athletics culture where mental toughness and grit are emphasized as the next new skill to train, student-athletes often feel like they need to go through their struggles alone and keep their pain in the dark. As a result, coaches need to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms of mental health issues that are common within the student-athlete population.
I think an excellent point that needs to be made for everyone is a message I’ve read multiple times on the internet, which states: “It’s important to remember that when you’re depressed, you have to nurse yourself and be extra gentle towards yourself. Just like an athlete wouldn’t break an ankle, then force themselves to run. They rest as it heals and doesn’t think, ‘I am a failed athlete.’ They think, ‘Right now, something isn’t working, so I’ll take care of myself until it does.’ Just like a broken bone, depression can change the way your daily life plays out, and pushing yourself too hard and getting frustrated when you don’t feel better is just like trying to run on that broken ankle and getting frustrated when it doesn’t heal.” I will end with a few words of my own advice,
“You are worthy and deserving of recovery.”
“You are not your illness.”
“You are not alone. You are loved. You matter more than you realize.”
“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you go, merely where you start.”
“The bravest thing you can do is continue your life when you want to die.”
“You don’t have to be at your lowest to ask for help.”
“Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.”