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Archive for May 9, 2022

May 9, 2022 — A prescient story

It was in May 1995 when I first saw Christa Samaras on a lacrosse pitch. She completely took over an NCAA Division I semifinal against Dartmouth with her enthusiasm and relentless energy in a 13-8 win.

It turns out that day was the last time we would see Sarah Devens on a lacrosse field. Her own enthusiasm and relentless energy masked personal demons which would see her take her own life in July of that year.

Last week, Samaras was the subject for a Forbes Magazine story, detailing her own mental health struggles at the time. Reading her struggle against suicide is a complete shocker and eye-opener that one of the greatest female lacrosse players our country has ever produced almost never stepped on that world stage.

As far back as the early 90s, while attending Annapolis (Md.), she was looking for a way out, including trying to see if there was a gun in her household.

“If I had found one,” she tells Forbes, “it would have been over.”

In this month, set aside for mental health awareness, we’ve been reading numerous accounts of struggle on the part of not only female athletes, but just plain folks who have found the Global Pandemic Era one of extreme emotion and trauma.

The Samaras story has had me going back over a quarter-century of mental notes about people I have seen in the sports world. Were there frowns when I asked questions? Was there a quaver or tremor in a voice? Did the behavior of an athlete or coach change over time? Were there coaches who, while finding success on the pitch, were creating numerous individual mental health crises off it?

I have my own suppositions regarding the role of coaching in the downward spiral of athletes. In some of the support areas of the teams, if you brought up the name of a player who may have flunked out of school or had a drop in form that relegated them to the bench, the player was dismissed as either a “head case” or a “lost soul.”

As we are all learning from the examples of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and other athletes who have either retired or withdrawn from competitions citing the need for a mental health break, the need for such a break has existed for long, long before.

I always observed, during the early 1990s in covering field hockey, that often the best goalkeepers were burnt-out soccer players. And I knew there were plenty of burnt-out soccer players who were going to camps and training events like the Olympic Development Program, all hoping to become the next Michelle Akers, Mary Harvey, or Lisa Gmitter (the U.S. right winger immediately before a legend named Mia Hamm came along).

I have seen different forms of what could be called abusive behavior. It wasn’t all about raised voices or raised hands, but commenting on appearance sometimes. I have seen more than one Division I athlete starve themselves and overtrain because their coach talked about a player’s baby fat.

And I have also seen overtraining like you wouldn’t believe. I once attended a week-long training camp for first-year students and walk-ons for a college field hockey program. The group numbered more than 60 at the start of the week, but were whittled down to about a dozen in about five days. It’s this kind of “survival of the fittest” which has often claimed promising players because of devastating lower-body injuries borne of overtraining, overstress, and dry, old-style artificial turf laid out on concrete.

Now, we’ve seen a major exodus in coaching in the last two years — not just in terms of field hockey or girls’ and women’s lacrosse, but in sports overall. Great leaders such as Mike Krzyzewski, Anne Horton, John Savage, C. Vivian Stringer, Laurie Berger, Jay Wright, and Karen Doxey have walked away from their coaching positions in the last few months.

I understand that some of them may be seeing the evils of the NLI on the horizon. It’s gotten to the point where high-school students are now receiving money to endorse products like athletic wear.

And maybe, just maybe, these coaches are looking for a mental-health break of their own, given the pressure to build on past success.