“There has always been a stigma of ‘You’re supposed to be mentally tough, not emotional,’ in athletics,” according to sports psychologist at University of Washington Ron Chamberlin in ‘How stigma interferes with mental health care.’ “It’s gotten in the way of a serious look at the problem.”
According to USA Today, recent studies have shown that athletes may be at an increased risk for mental health problems, with factors such as injuries, competitive failure and overtraining that can lead to psychological distress.
“I transferred to Harding from a state school, so that was a difficult transition to make,” senior midfielder for women’s soccer Rachel Bacon said. “Being an athlete, as well and having a social life mid-school year was a challenge. It wasn’t an easy transition, but it was what needed to be done for myself.”
Bacon played women’s soccer for three and a half years at Harding, but had to sit out the majority of her senior year due to a leg injury. This was her first serious injury while playing for the Lady Bisons.
“I was physically weak when I came to Harding, so I redshirted my freshman year so I could get stronger,” sophomore forward of the men’s basketball team Gojko Djokovic said. “That year was really difficult, because you do all of the work and even extra in practice, but you get no playing time.”
Throughout 2004, there were 200,000 injury reports, which is around 12,500 injuries per year, according to the NCAA and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. The number of injuries have been relatively consistent over the years.
“At first, I coped with my injury really well,” Bacon said. “Then I hit that three or four week marker where I didn’t know why it wasn’t getting better. It was hard. There were some days where I did not want to get out of bed. But I kept on trying. After a few more weeks of rehab, I figured out what the problem was and I was able to bounce back from that. I was able to play the last four games of my senior season.”
In addition to redshirting his freshman year, Djokovic is currently dealing with a knee injury.
“I had a lot of ups and downs mentally, especially my first year,” Djokovic said. “I’ve had minor and major injuries for the past year, so that has also been a challenge. I love playing ball and it is hard sitting on the sideline and just (watching).”
Djokovic, a Serbian native, said social and religious pressures play a role in mental health.
“I don’t come from a Church of Christ background and not even a protestant background; I’m Eastern Orthodox Christian,” Djokovic said. “We do certain things and express ourselves differently. So at first when I came to Harding, I kind of felt choked with some things. Once I got used to it, though, I’ve learned to like it here.”
Many athletes come from foreign countries and have different faith backgrounds. Athletes have to learn to adapt, according to, senior tennis player Gabriella Alves. Harding has also played a significant role in transforming her faith.
“Being baptized here, there’s something about Harding that is special to me,” Alves said. “Even though I got suspended freshman year and it was a rough start, I was able to come back. I’ve really come to see that this is a special place. One day, I will be able to come back and see where I made great memories and where I met Jesus.”
Harding has more than 365 athletes competing in 18 different sports, as well as students from all 50 states and 54 different nations. Being homesick is another factor that contributes to athletes’ mental health.
“Being an only child and English not being my first language were two of my challenges when I first came here,” Alves said. “I missed home sometimes, and it was a challenge learning the language.”
Alves is a native of Sao Paulo Brazil and has been playing tennis since she was 5 years old. She came to Harding to play tennis.
“I’ve always wanted to be perfect in everything I do, and in tennis, I just always want that perfect shot,” Alves said. “So, when there is a day I’m not playing well, it affects me a lot. When I first started playing, sometimes me playing bad ruined my day. I used to put so much pressure on myself. I’ve definitely gotten better with managing that though.”
One thing these athletes have in common is they each find help in talking to others. The worst way to deal with personal or mental issues is to isolation, according to Bacon.
“I got into a slump where I wasn’t motivated, and I felt bad for putting my emotions on other people, because I already had been talking so much,” Bacon said. “I felt bad for talking, so then I just stopped. I think if I had to go back I would change how I acted and not get as upset as I did. It’s hard in the moment to realize that things will get better.”
If someone needs help, it will always be there for them at Harding, through friends, mentors or the counseling center, Alves said.
“If you ever struggle with something, just remember there is always someone to talk to,” Alves said. “Always, always, always.”