The Evolution Of Mental Health Awareness In Professional Sports
By Rodney Wallace, former pro soccer player and founder of CBD brand Rewind.
At first, I was skeptical about sharing my thoughts and giving my opinion on “the Simone Biles Saga”. The word saga in itself makes it seem as if pulling out of a major Olympic event due to personal reasons has become not so personal. It is a draining process for the viewers to go through, some might think of it as exhausting. The world “saga'' takes time away from viewers' schedules and from their own personal agenda.
The word “saga” is appealing for networks and media outlets around the world to flip a brave and heroic action and be able to stand up for their own mental health. The word has negative connotations and it works against the athletes. It would be so nice to wake up to refreshing articles, leads about a young black olympian who is a human being and that she had the power to step up to her own podium. She was able to treat the mental aspect of existence like the gold that it is worth.
Real is putting yourself first above anyone else’s beliefs. Real is knowing the true worth of self. At the end of the day, athletes are praised when it is convenient to the fanatic, not when it sparks up their own childhood trauma that they currently carry with them in the present moment. Being someone that has been dealt mental health cards from day one, going through hell, and making it out while spending 11 years as a professional athlete has given me the courage to stand up for others who are going through their own internal battles.
Let's talk about bravery. Bravery is a word that has become a term used to describe someone's actions that lead them to hold on to something they feel they will eventually lose. Being brave is a term that has been thrown around in many different contexts, which leads to misuse or miss comprehension of what true bravery really is.
Vulnerability is brave, being so open that you can sit calmly in a room full of reporters and speak to the world about what it means to put the team first. Not only did Simone Biles put team USA first by knowing the importance of a healthy mental state to compete, Biles also gave the viewers an in-depth play-by-play on what was going on inside the mind of a top human and competitor. We have been witnessing human greatness and we are blessed by young icons who are practicing mindfulness during 2021, Tokyo Olympics.
It didn’t come easy for Simone, she had to sit there and explain to young children and adults that idolize the craft of gymnastics that “if you don’t take care of our mental health then you are not going to enjoy your sport, let alone succeed as much as you want to.”
When I look back at my career I don’t regret much, I look at all the highs and lows as the valleys that brought me to where I am now. There are moments when I daydream, what would it have been like to have had the resources that I use now to handle my depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, fears, and insecurities I have been coping with heavily since 2014. When I used to put on my cleats and compress all of my feelings, that was how I looked at it initially. Somehow I was able to hush 70,000 fans in my head while scoring a last-minute goal, representing my country in international matches. This led me to win an MLS Cup when I was going through the darkest times of my life. This seems not only draining but a recipe for disaster. Life gave me another chance, it opened up another window for me to climb in and realize that I was much more than a comment on Twitter, much more than a picture and an autograph. With the help of professionals, I was able to see myself as more than just a soccer star. For the first time, I was able to see myself as a human being who was blessed and was given the chance to play the very same game I played on the streets in Costa Rica after school. I was making a living doing what I loved, playing soccer. This allowed me to build a family and share with them what it really means to be brave. Getting the help I so desperately needed and showing up for myself at rock bottom. This honesty gave me the opportunity to show that vulnerability can bring you face to face with your childhood dreams. The feeling of having my wife, Haley and daughter Ivy support me at the 2018 FIFA World Cup was a complete turnaround and helped pave the way to get back to living again.
My life seemed to be moving nowhere fast; I found shelter in the superficial world where I could put on a mask and pretend everything was alright. In 2015, I had a manic breakdown before a match. Our family tickets were placed in our lockers to be collected after training. It had been a difficult week filled with a combination of sleepless nights and self-medication to slow my negative thoughts: Percocet, tequila, and a few painkillers did the trick.
I remember being angry about not winning a practice match. I was always the one talking shit if I won, and ready to get into it when I lost. That day, I guess I wasn’t having it. When I came back from a shower ready to go home, I saw that two of my tickets were missing. I usually don’t take something like that seriously but I could feel the rest of my teammates' chatter and laugh about my confusion. My big ego was shattered and I felt exposed. I reacted by going outside in my towel and grabbing a leaf blower. I yanked the chain three times, finally, the motor started, and walked into the locker room demanding to see my remaining two family tickets. As expected no one said a word, just laughter from my ridiculous look of a towel, flip flops, and a leaf blower. I began walking, blowing everything off the first locker and it gave me a sense of control and power. I found more joy in seeing papers going everywhere, jewelry flying in the air, people climbing on chairs to protect their belongings. I can still recall that I knew something was not right.
One of my closest friends on the team asked me if I was feeling ok. The next day, I didn’t start the game, and it had been many weeks that I wasn't in the starting eleven. This is probably what led to these shameless actions. After the game, as usual, I got wasted pretending that I was fine, hoping to hide my manic depression from others. I wish I had known then what I know now, but it took time to uncover the deep-seated truths and face my demons. Later that year, I lifted the most important cup of my career and scored the winning goal in the MLS Cup.
All of the mental anguish I suffered could have been avoided if I had realized that there was help out there. I want everyone to know that there is help for all of us, you just have to go after it! I feel that most of the time we act based on what has been recorded in our minds. The traumatic experiences stay with us and they manifest themselves in different ways at different times and then it quickly veers out of our control.
Simone Biles had the courage and knowledge to check herself during one of the most important events of her career. Olympic champion, The act of checking yourself and realizing that being grounded and mentally healthy is heroic. Simone had so much self-awareness with the decision to drop out of the competition, to know yourself so well that you are able to not put your body in physical danger is remarkable. Growing up, I was brought up to think that I had to toughen up and just do it. However, in the later stages of my life, I learned how to cope.
Wrestling champion and former two-division UFC titleholder, Henry Cejundo said that the media and fans played a role in building Biles up to a standard that she may have struggled to match. Cejudo wondered if this was something Biles could have overcome. Cejundo suggested the gymnast needs a kick in the arse, sprinkled with a little tough love.
An individual’s personal trauma does not need to become someone else’s burden to carry. If growing up you only got through because of kicks in the arse, maybe it's time for Henry Cejundo to “check himself” and break free from whatever was mentally or physically instilled. By reacting to another Olympic champion's actions of mindfulness in a negative way, he is not seeing the gymnast as a human. Instead of lifting each other up, we continue to use the old-school bravado method that is slowing down and hurting many athletes.
In 2020, after dealing with two hip replacements at the age of 31, I knew it was time for me to pay it forward to the game that gave me so much. Using my life experiences, my downfalls, my struggles I was able to turn Rewind into my own gold medal and created a CBD line based on the principle of taking a step back in order to move forward
CBD changed my outlook on life from a mental and physical standpoint. From 2017 to 2019, I was hiding in the locker room trying to figure out how to consume CBD without my teammates understanding what I was doing. I didn’t want the trainers to know since it also contained a percentage of THC which is banned in Major League Soccer. I found myself hiding once again and I was not happy about it. I had done so much work over the years to get to the happiest place in my life, it was unfathomable to have to go back into hiding mode again.
My doctors told me that my injuries were career-ending and I was grateful because my heart felt full. I had created a product to give others a chance to feel the way I feel now. Physically, my aches and pains were immensely reduced and I could enjoy the park with my kids, mentally I became limitless. Staying active is still a part of my life and taking care of my body is important and that’s why I know I can depend on my own proven recipe. My family and I learn from each other now. We try to improve our lives and help others along the way.
Let's lead the way for the next generation so that our present is just as beautiful as what lies ahead. I salute you Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka for taking the lead and givingmental health a face that will be part of a new and evolved culture for years to come. They are the brave billboards who stood up for themselves and for their own lives because inevitably no one else will. When Simone won the Bronze on balance beam, she said in USA Today, “It meant the world to be out there, I didn’t expect to walk away with a metal. I was doing it for me, and whatever happens, happens.”
Two heroic souls made the conscious decision to change the trajectory of what it means to be an open blueprint for the next generation to learn from; these are the paths Olympic champions should continue to strive toward; exposing their deepest and darkest experiences to their triumphant winning moments for the world to admire and understand. These are not easy tasks but Ms. Biles and Ms. Osaka took the responsibility head-on at the most pivotal time in their careers and for that, we are thankful for their bravery and their honesty.
For Naomi to showcase her life on a Netflix series and Simone expressing her beliefs to the world means that we are headed for change. There is no doubt that this generation is moving in the right direction and soon the rest of the world will catch up.
My outlet for change mentally and physically is CBD. I don’t need to rely on anybody else, let alone any other substance.
Rodney Wallace is a FIFA soccer champion and owner of REWIND By Rodney Wallace.