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Take time to listen

Ryan Stieg

2020 was a difficult year for all of us.

People were laid off and furloughed, many either contracted the COVID-19 virus or knew someone who did. More than 400,000 Americans have now died of the disease.

Even though it’s a new year, that doesn’t mean things have magically gotten better. The pandemic is still raging, the economy is still struggling and sports are very much up in the air.

It seems like on a weekly basis, players, coaches and fans are left wondering if there will even be a game played or if practices will be shut down. It’s not a fun time.

Not only has this year been physically draining on a lot of us, it’s also a strain mentally and emotionally. Imagine being an athlete, whether they’re a child or an adult, and you’re playing through this pandemic.

Over the course of this year, you’ve had to take classes online and limit your exposure to family and friends. Practices have had to be virtual all over the country and if they do take place, physical contact has been limited at times.

Then once the season starts, you just don’t know what each day is going to bring you. You might be starting that night, you might be on the bench or you might be sitting at home with COVID-19 as you watch your teammates take the field, court or ice.

Before the pandemic happened, various athletes were talking about their struggles with mental health. In 2019, multiple Olympic medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps talked on Twitter about how he battled anxiety and depression and how reaching out to a licensed therapist “ultimately helped save my life.”

Former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced he was retiring from football at age 29 and it surprised pretty much everyone in 2019 at a press conference when he said going through the cycle of injury, pain and rehab year after year had “taken my joy of this game away.” He added that “I’ve come to the proverbial fork in the road, and I made a vow to myself that if I ever did again, I would choose me, in a sense.”

Current San Antonio Spurs player DeMar DeRozan sent a tweet back in 2018 that said, TThis depression get the best of me.” A few days later, in an interview with the Toronto Star, DeRozan said “It’s one of them things that no matter how indestructible we look like we are, we’re all human at the end of the day. We all got feelings … all of that. Sometimes … it gets the best of you, where times everything in the whole world’s on top of you.”

Fellow basketball star and current Cleveland Cavalier Kevin Love has been very open about his mental health struggles. In a 2018 story he wrote for The Players Tribune, he said he suffered his first panic attack during a game in 2017 and he worried that he’d be judged by others. Then after he saw DeRozan’s tweet, he decided to share his battle with mental health issues.

It was heartwarming to see that professional athletes struggle with the same issues us nonathletes do every day.

Mental health issues are definitely on the radar of schools as health professionals have been hired at various colleges to help athletes with problems they may have. Being isolated from others can be difficult on anybody and not being around your teammates, family or friends can be draining on athletes. Combine that with the fact that many seasons have been delayed or canceled altogether hasn’t helped.

Westwood girls basketball, Negaunee boys basketball and Marquette boys hockey all had very promising postseasons grind to a halt last March. Spring sports didn’t even happen last year. Fall sports were pushed back and football and volleyball playoffs were halted in November before resuming a couple weeks ago.

If you look at Northern Michigan University or Michigan Tech, they lost their football seasons, while their winter sports were delayed. Even the pros had to spend a couple months last year away from people in a “bubble” in Florida or Canada just so they could complete their seasons.

It’s got to be brutal to be an athlete right now.

Earlier this month, a close friend of mine died. She was a talented high school athlete growing up in Indianapolis and a diehard Colts and Purdue Boilermakers fan. Despite her warm smile and caring, friendly demeanor, she was battling issues beneath the surface.

She died of an accidental overdose, which has been on my mind for the past few weeks. I could tell she was struggling and although I was able to cheer her up for awhile with jokes and talking about sports for awhile a few weeks ago, it appears that despite my best efforts, I couldn’t help her at the level I wish I could have.

I know it’s not my fault that she’s no longer with me or my wife, but I can’t help but wonder that if I had reached out to her one more time, maybe she could’ve held on a little longer and gotten the help she needed.

Everybody needs help at some point in their lives and during this tough time, it seems like everyone could use a friend. Many of us, including myself, will hide how they’re truly feeling because they don’t want to upset others or ruin their day with our problems. We keep them inside until the depression or anxiety eats away at us where we just can’t take it anymore. Too often it can end in tragedy.

So if you can, reach out to the people you care about. It doesn’t matter if it’s not an athlete or a coach. It could be a family member, a friend, a neighbor or just an acquaintance at work.

They might be shy and reluctant to share, but trust me, it’ll help. And if they do open up, listen and try to understand. You might be their only outlet and just letting out those feelings can do wonders for them.

We’re all in this together during these trying times. If we show that we’re there for each other and willing to help, we can get through this and be all the stronger for it.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.

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