By: Athletic Communications Assistant, Louie Abounader
BEREA, Ohio - The traditional narrative revolving around the mental toughness of athletes has become quite the paradox in recent years. High-profile athletes are starting to slowly creep out of the internal dungeons they feel trapped within and beginning to speak out on the struggles they face everyday when the spotlights shine dimmest. The most globally-recognized sports icons can have a huge impact on the aforementioned narrative but what can be said for the little guys—the ones who cope with the same mental health struggles and who work just as hard for their athletic achievements but do not have the same platform to share their story and affect change? Baldwin Wallace University junior student-athlete and mental health survivor Britt Bash (New Richmond/Cincinnati Country Day) is on a mission to change the perception of student-athletes who face these challenges at the NCAA Division III level.
Bash, a defender on the women's lacrosse team, has constructed a pilot mental health program in collaboration with her teammates and a sports psychologist, in hopes of understanding—and someday addressing the needs of the common student-athlete who may confront the same issues she dealt with during her collegiate career.
"With my experience as a student-athlete who has struggled with mental health, I definitely resonated with the project a lot because I missed out on so much with my anxiety and struggling with the PTSD of my accident," Bash confessed. "Not knowing how to channel that into a positive way led me to not take advantage of the great benefits of being a student-athlete. I really want to give my teammates, other players and other teams this opportunity to learn about this topic and reduce the stigma around mental health."
The accident Bash alludes to is a surreal and intense moment in her life that will become the primary inspiration for her involvement in a mental health passion project. While reliving the experience places her in a vulnerable state, she understands that talking about it and being more open about her experience can grant some authenticity to what she is trying to accomplish in her mission.
"I was diagnosed with an anoxic brain injury after an accident my freshman year," Bash recalled. "A couple days before classes started, I was at a ropes course and I fell off an obstacle. The rope of my harness got tangled around my neck and I was left hanging there. By the time I was rescued, I had been without oxygen for a prolonged period of time and was unexpected to live. They gave me CPR at the scene, took me to the hospital and I was in a coma without the expectation of waking up. But fortunately I did and I couldn't remember where I was, couldn't move the entire left side of my body. It was very devastating."
Heading into her freshman year of college three weeks behind in all her courses, the neuroscience, psychology and French triple major began at a disadvantage in the classroom and saw all her hard work from summer training evaporate as fall-ball began. She was in extensive rehabilitation and physical therapy and struggled to navigate through her injury. Despite all the physical hurdles Bash had to overcome, what she found to be most challenging was the mental toll the setbacks had taken.
"I didn't know what the injury meant for my identity and for my role on the team," Bash questioned herself. "I already had a lot of self-doubts, like most athletes face when coming into a new team. Am I good enough? Do I belong here? Where do I fit in? I had to face this new disability in rehab and deal with all these complex and painful emotions on top of just starting life as a college student. It was tough a time for me."
After getting cleared to play in the spring, roughly midway through her freshman season, Bash suffered another injury, this time dislocating her knee in the warm-ups of her first game back in the lineup. She would miss the entire remainder of her freshman campaign and require surgery for her second major injury in less than eight months.
"You talk about feeling isolated and not knowing your role," Bash remembered sadly. "I was on a team for nearly two years and a lot of it was just relearning how to make a home of my body again. I would bury myself in my school work, tying to find any way to avoid dealing with the trauma. I think I knew all along that I was struggling but I didn't know and didn't want to ask for help. It comes back to the whole misrepresentation of athletes with a pressure to always be strong and to never show any weakness."
Struggling to cope with the harsh reality of her injury-plagued collegiate career, one of BW's athletic trainers suggested Bash consult a counsellor who can help her navigate through her mental clashes.
"I've learned that in moments of isolation and hopelessness that we all play a role in taking care of one another," Bash said. "My experience with our trainers just highlighted the role of other members in our athletic department family, like coaches and teammates, in making us feel less alone and it's been a big factor in inspiring me to create this program."
At the beginning of this academic year, Bash began collaborating with Leeann Passaro, a student from Washington & Lee (Va.) University who is also working to raise awareness for mental health among student athletes, as well as one of BW's athletic trainers and a nearby sports psychologist to create a program that targets the student-athlete population as a vulnerable group for mental health struggles. They have started exploring how institutions across the nation may be falling short in providing resources and different types of tools for student-athletes who are trying to balance mental health, as well as challenging course loads and academic and financial pressures.
"With BW being as community-central as it is, the biggest thing I'm trying to study and highlight throughout this journey with this program is the importance of community and culture," Bash explained. "It's so important that we have conversations like this in talking with other athletes, coaches and campus administrators so that we can move forward and improve the student-athlete experience. Sports psychology is a resource that many bigger Division I programs and professional athletes are starting to lean towards and increase in usage. But at smaller schools with less funding, these services can sometimes be seen as a luxury or often foregone in budgetary decisions. Then, their resources that are available can sometimes be limited and in high demand. So with this very unique student-athlete population, which makes up a large portion of BW's student population, I think it's important that administrators and athletic departments recognize and monitor how they can best serve this specific demographic."
Bash also strongly believes that this study can improve athletic results.
"BW strives to be at the top of the OAC every year, so I really want to put an emphasis on how this can be a positive influence on our performance as well," Bash pointed out. "As a community, making it a safer space to explore these conversations and to feel more comfortable talking to teammates, coaches, trainers and really showing it is important for student-athletes to be heard and to acknowledge and address their needs."
She followed up her performance justification with some interesting analogies.
"It's just like how you wouldn't expect a track coach to send a 100-meter sprinter to compete in a long distance event," Bash compared. "If he or she is not a distance runner, they might not be prepared for that. It's even similar to throwing an athlete into a really intense and mentally-challenging game to knock down two free throws in basketball or to score a free position shot in lacrosse. Athletes want to be mentally tougher but that's not something that necessarily comes naturally to people. It's an athletic skill that needs to be trained just like strength and running."
With her plan set in motion, Bash began her mental health pilot program with the help of her women's lacrosse teammates. She has accumulated the majority of her data from implemented team-based activities.
"We primarily conduct a variety of exercises that involve goal-setting, reframing negative mindsets into positive mindsets, meditation, muscle relaxation, dialogue, imagery and positive self-talk," Bash listed off. "With all these different activities that we've done, I've also created a Dropbox platform where the players and I can upload our different worksheets and then our coaches, athletic trainers and sport psychologist also have access to it and can comment on it. It's just a matter of facilitating that communication and really fostering those relationships which I think is the most important."
Seeing the successful results and reviews of her program and gaining some recognition from her peers, Bash is eager to potentially expand her operation across multiple athletic programs at BW, where new and unique challenges may arise. Furthermore, with a larger sample size, Bash can also add some surplus ammunition to her already convincing case for a senior thesis next fall.
"Every team is different; every coach, every motivational environment. There's a big difference between pressure in a team-based sport versus an individual-based sport as well," Bash explained. "I definitely have a bias based on my experience being a member of the women's lacrosse team where we have a really close culture, we're even really close with Coach Shoger, but not all teams are like that. I think that contributing to the general body of knowledge of what works and what doesn't and providing this opportunity for other teams would be the next phase of elevating the program as I continue to conduct my research. I'm super excited to share what I've learned. I'm just a student doing my own research here. I'm not qualified nor am I a professional. All I can do it talk about my experiences and share the results that I've come up with."
Contemplating future plans beyond her undergraduate education, Bash aspires to one day get accepted into medical school. Having spent the last two summers doing clinical observations and volunteer work in the departments of psychiatry and neurology at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, she credits her passion to someday work in the field as a simple yearning to help people and a quote, from one of BW's keynote speakers, Dr. Tererai Trent.
"My freshman year, I went to hear her speak and this one quote she said really resonated with me. She said, 'In order to find your sacred dream, your calling, what you're supposed to do with your life, you first have to ask yourself what breaks your heart and whatever your answer is to that question will always drive you to make a difference in that field.' My work at Cincinnati Children's Hospital really broke my heart, but at the same time filled me with so much passion and drive to keep on this path," Bash explained wholeheartedly. "Balancing three majors, being a varsity athlete, working two jobs; I know that this is what I want to do. I want to help people everyday. I can't wait around until I roam the halls of the hospital as a doctor; I want to make a difference today. With this psychological skills training program that's been my brainchild and passion project, I'm so blessed and grateful for all the support I've gotten and that it's been able to come to fruition. And to have people tell me how much it's impacted them is really special."