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Athletes at NFA grapple with their sport's toll on mental health

The Day - 11/18/2022

Nov. 18--NORWICH -- After her penalty kick sailed over the crossbar, sealing an overtime defeat, Alyssa Newson, a Norwich Free Academy senior, cried for a good long while.

"Oh, it's my fault," she recalled telling herself.

But that wasn't true, Newson said she eventually realized. Her Norwich Free Academy girls' soccer team had plenty of other opportunities to win the game. Losses, like victories, are the responsibility of entire teams.

Will Ambruso, also an NFA senior, took it upon himself to shed weight so he could wrestle at a lower weight class. He'd binge-eat to put the weight back on, restoring as much as 10 pounds overnight.

"No one asked me to," he said. "I did it for the team."

Newson, Ambruso and a half-dozen other NFA athletes discussed their personal mental-health struggles Friday during a conference at the high school, candidly sharing stories that were authentic and revealing. A panel of four of the students addressed about 300 of their fellow varsity athletes in Slater Auditorium at the same time Megan Cannon, a sports psychologist, delivered a keynote address to another group of 300 athletes in Norton Gymnasium. Then the groups switched venues.

Anne Zinn, a school counselor and assistant girls' basketball coach, said NFA athletes were the impetus for the conference.

"We'd heard from the athletes how they were struggling with school, the (COVID-19) pandemic, their sport," said Zinn, who advises the Varsity N Club, an NFA service group open to the school's varsity athletes. "We discussed having a conference with a speaker and some of the students propelled it forward."

Zinn said athletes are often held to higher standards than other students and face more stigma and shame when they admit they need help with their mental health.

"It was made worse by the pandemic," she said. "The isolation and not being able to participate in their sport and be part of their team the thing that makes them excited to come to school made it worse for athletes than other students."

The pressure of having to excel in the classroom and on the field or court while navigating a social life "can get to them," Zinn said.

Alice Rourke, a junior who plays field hockey and lacrosse, said she's been involved in sports since she was in first grade. In the seventh grade, she experienced depression and thought about harming herself. At times, she's struggled to get out of bed in the morning and has had anxiety attacks before practice sessions.

"Freshman year was tough," she said.

Elya Anor, a sophomore who participates in cross country and track, spoke of the stress of competition and harshly judging herself. Feeling "underqualified," she said, she's learned that how good you are is a reflection of the work you put in.

"But realize some days you're not your best self," she said. "Expect to have struggles."

Michael O'Farrell, NFA's director of communications, moderated the panels and posed questions, asking the athletes about such things as the impact of social media and dealing with expectations, perfectionism and the demands on an athlete's time.

"Sometimes after a loss, it hurts to see the other team celebrating (on social media)," Newson said.

The athletes agreed it was useful not to dwell on poor performances and to not expect perfection. Avoid being overly self-critical, they advised.

Rourke admitted she doesn't manage time well, relating how her team once played four games in five days. At such times, it helps to reach out to counselors, she said. Several of the panelists said they benefited from having parents who were athletes as students and understood the challenges.

"I like to read athletes' biographies," Newson said. "It's helpful to know you're not alone."

Cannon, the keynote speaker, who competed as an athlete at the college level, said more and more elite athletes are publicly discussing their struggles with mental health. Twenty-seven percent of college athletes admit to having been diagnosed with depression at some point, she said, while 34.9% have been diagnosed with anxiety, or "fear of the unknown." She said the percentages are similar among high school athletes.

"How many of you have ever felt overwhelmed?" she asked her first audience of the day. A majority raised their hands.

Only 10% of athletes ever seek help, Cannon said.

She listed actions athletes can take to improve their emotional health, including awareness and acceptance of one's feelings and acknowledging that "rest is OK." She said most athletes' injuries occur among those who are getting less than six hours of sleep a night.

Athletes should prioritize their own emotional needs and make a point of engaging in activities that make them feel good, Cannon said. Occasionally, that may mean taking a break.

"Your sport can become the stressor," she said.


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