How Athletes Can Address the Psychology of Injury

Learning from Lamar Odom and Chamique Holdsclaw

Posted Nov 17, 2015

After a stay at a Nevada brothel, former Los Angeles Laker Lamar Odom was rushed to emergency care in early October. Reports said that his stay at the brothel included the use of cocaine and sexual performance drugs. He was unconscious, and it appears that his fast lifestyle had put him in physical danger, and the media circled around the story as his former wife flew to be by Odom’s side. I started to wonder if the lens we view athletes when they experience these types of incidents was fair. Was there another way to understand what Lamar Odom was going through from a psychological perspective?

In the world of professional sports, athletes are held to a higher standard than your everyday Joe. Young children view athletes as role models, and often people view them as stars and that they can do no wrong. The truth of the matter is all athletes are human. We all share a common bond: EMOTION. We all feel. Not everyone is brought up the same way, and not everyone has the ideal life as a child, and no one is immune to mental illness.

When people judge professional athletes, they sometimes mention the expression: “With the world at their feet what could possibly be wrong with them?” The truth is we are all human and as we grow older; whatever emotions experienced during our upbringing from traumatic events that we witnessed or have gone through begin to manifest themselves in us as adults. Not everyone has the capability of overcoming what I call the darkness inside of their psyche. Some people turn to drinking; others turn to drugs, and, sometimes, others find a sexual addiction in one form or another. But we hold athletes to a higher caliber of behavior, and people expect them not to suffer from any type of illness.

With that being said, I would like to talk about 2 people who came from the same high school that I attended. I consider us family even though we all have diverse backgrounds. Christ the King Regional high school is located in Queens, New York, and it has been a powerhouse for both men’s and women’s basketball for over 25 years. Chamique Holdsclaw, Lamar Odom, and I are a part of that Christ the King family.

For Lamar, also a successful professional basketball player, it was different.  He got entangled in a very sparse, deep web. He seemed to keep it all on the inside. He began to abuse drugs and possible have a sex addiction. He also had a troubled childhood which eventually manifest itself and reared its ugly head as his became older and more successful.

When I was a Division I athlete and played basketball at Arizona State University, I unfortunately suffered a career ending injury to my back. This injury caused such emotional pain and turmoil within myself that the pain and depression festered inside me for almost 15 years. Sometimes athletes place their whole identity in their success.

Losing your athletic career can cause serious psychological ramifications. First, you lose your teammates. While everyone is out practicing and traveling to games, you realize that you lose that camaraderie. Secondly, you begin to question your confidence in yourself and fall into a bit of a depression. You may feel alone and that no one understands the surgery and recovery you have ahead of you or your thoughts of “Will I ever be able to play again?” and if not, what do I do now? 

There are many athletes who hide these feelings and suffer through this alone. At Arizona State, I was in athletic rehabilitation with a male basketball player who was named Pac-10 freshman of the year who had blew out his ACL, and he said to me: “Miele, no one knows what this is like and what this feels like.” Unless you are going through the recovery, it is not easy to explain what you’re going through. Being injured grates on your confidence, and once you are told you will never be the same player or your career is over it can be devastating. I know because it devastated me!

After my basketball injury, I suffered from depression for many years, predominantly due to the loss of what once was a promising basketball career. Holdsclaw, the best female basketball player of all time, began to suffer with a bipolar disorder, and as she calls it “her own mental hell.”  Eventually, she stepped away from basketball to try to better understand and assist others with the education of self-awareness of mental illness. She recently has written a book regarding her experience with mental illness titled, Breaking Through: Beating the Odds Shot after Shot.

One of the most important aspects of dealing with athletes who have a mental illness or demonstrate an acute mental illness is that there is always help. Coaches and athletic trainers, family and friends need to be aware of the signs and how they can best assist their loved ones. Some Signs to look for:

  • Withdrawal
  • Moodiness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lack of concern of appearance
  • Negative talk
  • Talk of suicide

I know that when I was injured I wanted to separate from my teammates; my coach forced me to watch practice thinking it would make it better for me; it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and she just didn’t get it. Being too young at that time, I didn’t know how to tell her that I needed help. I began to withdraw, crying every day and contemplated suicide more times than I’d like to count. I went to this dark place in my mind that no one unless they suffered through depression could possibly comprehend.

It’s amazing how I play it back in my head so many times now. I’ve become emotionally more mature and have coached now for over 25 years, and I wish I would have done so many things differently. But I did not have the mental tools. The tools that I try to discuss in almost every blog I write. My suggestion for athletes who suffer from depression and anxiety: tell your coach, a friend or a family member and have them reach out to a mental health professional such as a sport psychology consultant that can assist you out of that dark place. It sometimes can hit so fast that before you get a chance to ask for help you are so far gone, hence Lamar Odom.

Athletes need social support, depending on the circumstance they need to know that they can get back out and play again that they will just get back out and enjoy life. I do not typically share my story because I prefer not to, but when I see the media and other avenues placing judgment on anyone who suffers through a mental illness, I felt it was best to describe something that is so near and dear to my heart. Suicide is real and some people choose to do it immediately and others choose to do it slowly, through substance abuse and addictions. Please take any signs of depression and/or anxiety from anyone you know seriously. You may save their life.

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