A pair of significant figures in the women’s college game address the mental health crisis in the sport.
Joanne P. McCallie and Felisha Legette-Jack settled into their seats at the restaurant after a long day of recruiting in Atlanta.
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The former Michigan State women’s basketball colleagues always grab a meal whenever they can to catch up on family life and discuss their careers.
McCallie, in her 12th season as the head coach at Duke, recently returned to work after taking a two-month medical leave of absence to treat a kidney-related ailment. Legette-Jack, in her seventh season as the head coach at Buffalo, just led the Bulls to the first Sweet 16 appearance in program history.
Although the normal banter often shifts to Xs and Os at some point during the meal, McCallie and Legette-Jack put that aside for a much bigger issue that’s been weighing on their minds — mental health.
They are both worried.
Worried about their stressed out players, worried about their overworked colleagues and worried about their own well being.
They see athletes struggling with depression and anxiety and feeling like they have nowhere to turn. They see coaches sacrificing time with their families to pull all-nighters to try and stay one step ahead of the competition.
They read about suicides and have attended funerals for young adults who were desperate to escape their hidden pain.
“Mental health is an issue that needs to be addressed in the open. We have a lot of opportunity as coaches to try to elevate this conversation and help these kids in whatever way we can,” McCallie said. “It’s hard to grow up today, and we need to find ways to help find support for anyone who needs it and make sure they feel safe and can talk about it.”
Across all sports, more and more athletes have been sharing their stories to help eradicate the stigma surrounding mental health.
Former Tennessee star Chamique Holdsclaw has been a mental health advocate for many years, giving talks about her own struggles to educate others.
Last season, Utah’s Emily Potter went public with her battle with depression in a heartfelt column in The Daily Utah Chronicle.
NBA stars like Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan have recently come forward to discuss dealing with anxiety and depression.
“Mental health is something we all can get better at. We just have to talk about it and let people know we want to know what they are thinking,” Legette-Jack said. “A lot of mental things are going on that are driving people to quit the sport, quit coaching and ending their lives. Some athletes are really overwhelmed by a lot of things. That is something nobody is willing to talk about, but it’s something we need to talk about.”
McCallie is planning to host a Mental Health Awareness game at Duke this season. The program has already developed the hashtags #WeFree and #MeFree to use in promoting the discussion about mental health.
“For me, this has been a passion percolating for many years. This is not reactive to any current things specifically going on. It just seemed like the right time,” McCallie said. “I had to take a couple of months off from the kidney ailment and I guess that gave me time to reflect. I think you come to conclusions when you take a step back, and it provided me with this thought and really motivated me to act on it.”
Mental health is an issue that is deeply personal to Legette-Jack. Her sister has schizophrenia.
“My sister is one of the toughest people I have met in my life and all of a sudden I saw her crumble in front of me. I am asking how did it happen? How did we not catch that?” Legette-Jack said. “If we had been courageous enough to talk about it, could we have prevented that with my sister? I don’t have the answers, but I am willing to talk about what may have triggered it. It’s something I am willing to put my name on saying ‘I raise my hand.’ I am willing to talk about it to try and prevent my players from going through something as tough.”
During her 27-year coaching career, McCallie has witnessed several players or family members of players deal with mental health issues, including depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia and panic attacks.
“I had to decompress a young woman from a full-blown panic attack that came out of nowhere and it was challenging,” McCallie said. “I’ve had to help student-athletes with tremendous things that perhaps I wasn’t trained for, but I had to figure it out. I think coaches need to be talked to because we try to pay attention to the signals and we spend a lot of time with student-athletes. If there is a void in information, that is not helpful for mental health treatment. I know our role is not medical doctors and there is only so far we can take it, but we have nuggets of information that can be very helpful if they are being treated.”
Since arriving at Buffalo, Legette-Jack has tweaked her coaching philosophy a bit to keep players from burning out or feeling overwhelmed.
“I’ve backed away from always wanting them to do more and push harder, and I think we are winning more and the kids are enjoying the game a lot more,” she said. “I know what the NCAA says about days off, but I don’t think I’ve ever done 20 hours a week with my team since I’ve been at Buffalo. How much are they going to hear me after so many hours? They get in the gym on their own more and have a lot of fun with it. I don’t want my players to leave this school and not love it. If it gets to the point where it’s too heavy or too much, let’s talk it through and find a way to get you to your dreams. I want them to help me be a better coach by communicating with me and talking to me on a consistent basis.”