The Mental Health Matrix: Where Athletes, Minorities, and Leaders Differ – And We All Collide

For the quick readers,

Here’s all I want you to know:

We, as humans, will fast-track innovation and world peace when we learn about the mental health challenges athletes, minorities, and leaders face that are unique to their journeys.

Here’s why:
Mental health is something that can be challenging for all of us to manage.(1) From the wide-eyed freshman to the tenured faculty, balancing one’s work and personal life is difficult. So can we all agree that everyone should prioritize their psychological and emotional well-being?

I’m hoping you shouted a resounding, “YES!” and if you did then keep reading to learn more.

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While mental health challenges affect us all, they affect us all differently.

As a former Division 1 athlete, African American, and community leader, I’ve faced a plethora of unique challenges that weakened my mental stability just from identifying with multiple social groups.

Throughout this article, I’m going to highlight how athletes, minorities, and leaders each have unique vulnerabilities about which society should be informed, so that we can strengthen our human connection as we evolve.

As an athlete, I faced pressures that my non-athlete friends couldn’t relate to. I was proud to wear my football jersey when we won our games. I thought the entire student body loved us and were on our side. Then, when we lost, I’d see our student newspaper write an opinion article saying ‘The Football Team Sucks!’, or people (who I thought were my friends) stopped inviting us to their parties.

Like many other student-athletes, I couldn’t tell who liked me because I was an athlete or who actually liked me — for me.(2)

And, to make matters worse, I knew that if one of my non-athlete friends and I got caught drinking and driving, he would get a DUI and move on with his life, while I would be on national television with a thick-red-lettered-DUI stamped on top of my forehead.

The pressures of being held to a higher standard with more eyes on me and the uncertainty of my friendships were all contributing factors to my depression, my eventual opioid addiction, and the multiple attempts at suicide that I faced in college.

I share more of my story in my best-selling book Who Am I After Sports?

I could go on and on about the mental health nuances that are unique to athletes(3), but I want to be sure to offer a solution for each section.

I believe part of the solution to improved athlete mental health is educating our athletes on the relational dynamics of the four types of fans and how to have informed, healthy relationships with each. First, I will define the four types and then explain why this is crucial information to equip our athletes with…

  • The bandwagoner – These are people who are only fans as long as you’re winning and doing well. After your career ends, so will your relationship with them.
  • The businessperson – These are people who only have interest because of the financial gain that can be made from a relationship with you. A coach, an agent, a media contact, an administrator, etc. When you can no longer produce a return on your investment, the relationship will be over.
  • The admirer – These are the people who don’t know what else to say to you beyond the subject of your sport. They like you and they are a fan of yours, but if you don’t have sports to connect about, they struggle to find much else to relate to.
  • The true fan – These are the people who will be your fans forever because they like you for you, beyond what you can achieve on the field. They will believe in you and cheer for you in every adventure of your life, far beyond your sport.

Our athletes must understand the foundation on which each type of relationship is built. I am certainly not advocating that we become skeptical of everyone. In fact, this information can help us to celebrate each one for what it is because each type can truly serve a purpose. More importantly, our athletes can protect their mental health by keeping bandwagoners in the bandwagon category, business people in the business people category, and so on. Get hype with the bandwagoners on game day! Have a great conversation with an admirer in the restaurant. But, don’t look to a business person to be a true friend when your career is over. (You get the point.) This knowledge will help our athletes avoid feeling alone or betrayed as their seasons end and championships come and go, thus providing a stable foundation for mental health.

Growing up as a studious black kid wasn’t easy. I was “too white” to fit in with the black students and I was “too black” to fit in with my white friends. I never felt accepted so I changed my identity, behaviors, wardrobe and laughing style to fit in with the black community. I share more in my TEDx Talk Overcoming Rejection; When People Hurt You and Life Isn’t Fair.

Minorities face the unique mental health challenge of being rejected for nothing more than being themselves. They risk having what’s unique about them become the source of their rejection. Rejection doesn’t have to be the norm for minorities. Let me explain…

We have to learn how to love people the most when we “feel” they deserve it the least. When we interact with someone that we disagree with or we deem as in violation of our norms, there is an obvious tension. Most of the time, the result is distance, disconnection, and judgment. Rarely is love the result. But, it’s at that moment of tension we have a decision to make. And that decision should be to LOVE. Love is the bridge that connects rather than divides. Love is the bridge that includes rather than separates. How do we learn to love? We ask questions, we learn from those who aren’t like us, we seek understanding, and we open our minds to new possibilities.

“Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that,”

— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.(4)

Making these choices is what creates the belonging that is necessary to stabilize minorities’ mental health. We can create a community where belonging is given to everyone freely. Mental health battles become obsolete because we’re meeting our basic human need to be fully known and fully loved. We eliminate the triggers, the pain, the rejection, and we live — together.

The greatest threat to my mental health as a leader was people doubting my vision because they couldn’t understand it.

I’ve been called crazy, out of my mind, unrealistic, and an idiot just because I have a tendency to see things as they can be and not as they are.

These are all labels that people like Steve Jobs(5), Albert Einstein, Rosa Parks, and Walt Disney have been labeled.

The gift of seeing what others can’t see often comes with the curse of being alone.

The solution is for leaders to trust their instincts when leading through change, and to seek comfort from the right relationships.

Innovative leaders may not be able to find comfort in their peers, but they can find comfort in their predecessors.

Remember the leaders who have overcome the odds, traveled to uncharted territories, and broken down walls of division in spite of challenging, even deadly, circumstances.

When I feel this way, I sit and reflect, identifying other leaders in society who felt misunderstood. I ask myself who can I reach out to that has felt the same way that I do right now. Go to them for comfort. If there’s no one in my life right now who understands, then I look at other people in pop culture or government or anyone in the spotlight who I can relate to. I read their books, watch their movies, etc. If there’s no one in society today, then look to our history. Someone at some point must have felt this way. By following these steps, I usually find someone who has gone through something similar and pressed through to achieve great things. Sometimes, just knowing I’m not alone brings peace and comfort and alleviates some of the pressures of leadership. It gives me an extra boost of determination and support.

Let’s make sure our visionaries can rest in the comfort of knowing that someone in history has felt their pain. And while we may never understand their vision, let’s withhold our criticism and trust that the beauty of life will be found in what we can’t understand.(6)

Athletes, minorities, and leaders each have unique mental health vulnerabilities, but again, mental health challenges affect us all. As we learn to see the world through other perspectives, and choose to more vulnerably share our own story, we, as humans, will fast-track innovation and experience a world of more peace, love, and joy.