With summer sports camps now in full gear across our communities, we need to talk about a painful subject. And on this subject, Palm Beach Atlantic soccer player Michaela Boyd has insight for parents that could prove lifesaving.
At least three NCAA athletes died by suicide in less than two months this past spring, according to news reports. That breaks Michaela’s heart. And she knows from experience how mental health crises in college athletics can develop from attitudes found in organized sports for children.
Michaela began competing at a young age, and she sees great benefits in team sports. “It teaches you so much discipline,” she said. “And I just love being on a team.” But appropriately encouraging athletics requires a delicate balance on the part of the young people, their coaches and their parents.
“Our culture has put way too much pressure on athletes and student-athletes,” Michaela said. Six-year-olds are being nationally ranked, she said, when they should be told simply, “Go have fun. Kick a ball or hit a ball with a bat. It’s a game, right?”
By the time Michaela was 12, that societal pressure caused extreme anxiety. She was running track, and she was gifted at it. But she had begun to sense that people treated her differently depending upon how well she competed. “The principle was instilled in me that my performance on the field equated to my self-worth,” she said.
Sometimes she would faint or throw up before her races. “Outside factors had stolen the joy” of her sport, she realizes now. She tried to quit track, but she felt pressure to keep running, to keep pushing.
You’ve seen the posters: Winners never quit. Quitters never win. No pain, no gain. I understand that principle, and I work really hard at my gym. But the children! Let’s allow them to enjoy childhood, so they don’t arrive at high school and college already stressed about competition.
This big ball of energy
Michaela came to Palm Beach Atlantic University in 2019, having decided to concentrate on soccer instead of track. Women’s soccer coach Chris Gnehm described her as “this big ball of energy, super competitive, and so uplifting for our team.” She scored in her first appearance with the team.
“Soccer is the best sport in the world,” said Michaela, “and every country in the world except the U.S. knows it. When you reach certain levels, soccer is really beautiful. It’s like people doing art with their feet.”
In her sophomore year, COVID-19 effectively wiped out intercollegiate competition. And when Michaela returned last year as a junior, the anxiety she had felt as a 12-year-old resurfaced. Once again, at times she would throw up or faint before competition.
“It wasn’t the soccer,” she realizes now. “I love soccer.” The problem was a pattern of thinking ingrained in her from childhood, a pattern “that had gotten really, really deep,” and that had begun to affect her physical health.
So what was Michaela to do? Just suck it up and push through? I’m happy to report she reached out for help. She had long talks with her coach and others. She began to reframe her thinking about her relationship with soccer. And about her own value as a person Jesus died for – a person worthy of love.
She realized, I’m not the only one going through this struggle. Now she has decided, “I’m fortunate enough to be in the process of coming out on the other side and able to share my story with other people.”
NCAA provides her a platform
Michaela was named to a national post on the NCAA Division II Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. It’s a great honor, and this Sailfish is making the most of it. She has spoken on numerous panels, sharing her experience regarding mental health and also about inclusion and being a student-athlete of color.
“I’ve been telling my story to everyone who will listen,” she said, “and I’m grateful that the NCAA gives me a platform to do so.”
“Michaela’s vulnerability, shared through her NCAA platform, is helping break the stigma,” said Courtney Lovely Evans, director of athletics at PBA. “We want to compete at the highest levels of Division II, but we want our student-athletes to be whole: spirit, body and mind. We work closely with Student Development and the Counseling Center to ensure that our student-athletes are connected with the resources they may be unaware that exist or may be ashamed to ask for.”
Courtney and I are thankful that PBA student-athletes compete within the balanced framework of NCAA Division II. This approach emphasizes a program of academics and athletics to produce college graduates who will become good citizens, leaders and contributors in their communities.
Michaela will become one of those graduates next May, but this fall she’ll be back on the soccer field, excited to tackle her senior season. Once again she’ll be making art with her feet, but this time with a new mindset. And this time I don’t think she’ll let anything steal her joy.
Dr. Debra A. Schwinn, a physician, researcher and innovator, is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University. (www.pba.edu) For more articles by Dr. Schwinn, visit goodnewsfl.org/author/dr-debra-a-schwinn/
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time, day or night.