Micah Gatewood : Real Athletes Talk

Mental health plays a very big role in everyone’s life. There are some people who have theirs in mint condition and appear to be well put together, and there are others who cannot bear to go on with their lives anymore. In my 17 years of being on this earth, I have experienced both situations and it was a rollercoaster of emotions. 

This rollercoaster started for me in middle school and continued through my high school years. Peer pressure, bullying, social media, relationships, and people pleasing became the source of my emotional journey. Trying to fit into a group and to be someone that I was not, was causing me to be overly concerned about what others thought of me. This increased my anxiety and led me to a place where depression consumed me more than light in a dark room. 

The basketball court was often a place where the pressures of all that was trying to consume was released and I could be free to be me. Now I won’t lie and say that there were not hard moments. As an athlete there are plenty of pressures and doubts and I have experienced them over the course of my high school athletic career.        But the court still was the place of escape for me. 

Junior year was by far the most painful and stressful year of high school. My upperclassmen friend who was on the varsity football team committed suicide. I made varsity basketball which I felt was a major accomplishment, but I wasn’t enjoying this accomplishment because of limited playing time and relationships with teammates. My own intrusive thoughts began to take a hold of my daily joy to the point where I thought harming myself was the only answer. Thankfully, I had a strong support system around me. I talked to my parents and my therapist about the way I was feeling and they immediately took action. I was able to get into an intensive 10 week outpatient group program, where I learned healthy coping mechanisms, tools to help navigate my emotions, and learned the value of using my voice to care for my emotional health. 

This experience has helped me learn the power of having a support system during hard times. As an athlete, showing emotion and vulnerability often don’t go together. You are told to be tough and don’t show emotion. The pressures of competition, approval from coaches, and the desire to perform at the ultimate level can all weigh heavy on any athlete. This intensifies for males due to what would be considered “societal norms” male athletes to be “tough” and emotionless. As a result, emotions can often be displayed in unhealthy ways such as drug use, alcohol use, or other unhealthy behaviors. Everyone needs a healthy way to release the pressures of everyday life and people to support them in difficult times. 

In an effort to create a safe space for male athletes to be their authentic selves, I would create a campaign called, “Real Athletes TALK”. Social media plays a major role in mine and my peers’ world, so I would leverage these platforms to promote this positive space. I would create Instagram and Tic Tock that would showcase athletes telling their stories of struggles and triumph with mental health. This space would also have daily affirmations, motivational moments, and resources for support to provide encouragement to all group members. There will also be an opportunity for athletes to join Google Meet groups where they can engage in fun mental health support activities on a weekly basis. 

As an extension to social media engagement the formation of the “Real Athletes Talk” hangouts will be offered to group members to implement in their schools or communities. . This is a 2- hour, 4-week program peer-led group, where athletes can come play a fun sport together for the first hour and spend the second hour discussing struggles and celebrating triumphs. The discussion sessions would have a specific topic and special guests would be invited to share motivation, inspiration, and resources to support the athletes. An adult advisor would be present during sessions to support the athletes and provide mental health resources if needed. 

I am a living testimony of the power of having a strong support system to help you through life’s challenges. It is helpful to talk. It never hurts to go to someone you truly trust and express your thoughts and feelings. Every person deserves to be in a space where they feel cared about and have support. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can”. I want to help others out of darkness and realize the light they have in them to be EXTRAORDINARY!! 

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