On Tuesday, Sept. 12, nearly 450 student athletes gathered at the Hauck Auditorium. Derek Greenfield, a motivational speaker, author and educator, came to the University of Maine to talk to student athletes about confronting their differences.
This two-hour event was put together by UMaine Athletics and the Office of Multicultural Student Life. UMaine received a $640,000 fund from the National Collegiate Athletic Association in an effort to support student athletes. The UMaine Student Athlete Advisory Committee has representatives from each team, and when the question of where to direct the money came up, the committee reached the consensus on mental health.
Student athletes go through the same stress factors as regular students such as adjusting to the new environment, maintaining relationships keeping a good GPA. But on top of that, they have the added pressure of representing the school. When the games end, they still wear the school uniform off the field, on the road and during classes.
“What we’re able to do is open the discussion,” Greenfield said during his talk. “Hard discussions on these difficult topics. Sharing the first word is difficult and then it gets easier from there.”
This talk revolved around athletes sharing their stories. The first half of the talk encouraged them to interact with different athletes who are not on their teams. In small groups of two to four people, they got to know where they come from, funny stories from their lives and the goals they share. The remaining part of the talk dealt with topics that are more personal: the fears they have, the struggles they deal with and things that no one in the audience would assume about them. Greenfield asked questions such as, “Stand up if any time last year you felt emotionally scared or afraid to be you.”
One of those hard topics that touched home was suicide.
According to the National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression, one in 12 college students makes a suicide attempt. In 2013, Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, declared mental health as the leading health and safety concern for NCAA members.
“I felt uncomfortable when they asked about suicide,” Sterling Sheffield, a third-year football player said. “But in order to be comfortable you have to be uncomfortable. I knew it was for a greater thing.”
During Greenfield’s talk, there was a visible shift in the audience. Student athletes came in the Hauck Auditorium bustling, joking, catching up with their teammates. As the talk progressed, the atmosphere transformed into something real, honest and raw.
“I came in thinking it would be a regular presentation for student athletes,” Sheffield said. “When I came out, I found out how everything is different and how everyone needs to be together to accomplish something great. This helped me get closer to my teammates and students from other sports.”
Lynn Coutts, senior associate director of athletics, helped organize the event. After the talk, she received emails from students who either wanted to get help or wanted to help others. For the next two days, Coutts made it her priority to provide all the necessary resources available on and off campus.
“I’ve been blessed that they can talk to me. These kids know they can open up if you care about them and if you respect them,” Coutts said. A mother and a coach, she calls student athletes her kids. “When you get that close, they become my kids. As a mom, you picture your own kids there too, and you wonder if they were there, would somebody take care of your kids?”
Coutts believes this talk created an environment where student athletes felt motivated internally.
“You have to find that in you. We can’t motivate people but we can create an environment.”
Moving forward, Coutts is determined to break the stigma of mental health and open up the space for such dialogue among the athletes.
“There is a higher expectation we have toward student athletes,” Coutts said. “They want to do everything well and be good at everything. There are expectations from the society, from parents, and maybe there’s also pressure from coaches. Striving to do everything well is not realistic, you have to do the best you can. These kids put more pressure on themselves than anyone else puts on them.”
This talk was a wake-up call to the ones in the audience. It revealed that there is so much more to one’s story, because underneath the myths and stereotypes you hear about a student athlete, there is a human.