Some of the names in this story were changed as to protect the identity and privacy of the individuals.
Sometimes in practice, Kent State sophomore student-athlete Ashley Joyce says she felt like she couldn’t breathe. Like so many times before, she couldn’t breathe. It was another panic attack.
Joyce tried to hide and suppress her emotions to bury the pain, but the feeling of hopelessness continually creeps up on her, sinking her deeper and deeper into depression. Fighting back tears, she headed to the bench to try to catch her breath. Teammates patted her on the back to calm her down. “You’re fine, Ash,” they said. “Everything’s going to be OK.” But Joyce is far from fine, and everything is far from okay.
The attacks started during her freshman year after Joyce, a highly recruited star in high school, lost her starting job. Her coach named her the starter until a senior beat out Joyce at the end of season for the starter position and took her job. The situation spiraled down until she — like many students, including student athletes — knew she couldn’t handle it alone.
The 20-year-old was a big fish in a little pond in high school. Joyce was on top of the world in her sport when she graduated from high school in 2014. She was named an All-American and earned all-conference player all four years in high school.
Then Joyce got to Kent State, and everybody else had been a high school star, too. That top-of-the-world feeling suddenly vanished, and the big fish wasn’t so big anymore. The freshmen fell back to the bottom of the totem pole.
“Here where your coaches do what’s best to win, and they don’t care about (what) you're feeling or anything, so it was hard to get used to having to push myself and not get all the praise that often,” Joyce said.
Joyce, who calls herself an introvert at heart, had difficulty adjusting to college life. Meeting new people, adopting a new training schedule and excelling in her sport proved difficult. She tried to shrug it off, but the feelings of despair lingered and refused to dissipate.
“[Sports are] your outlet, and that’s where you go when you’re having a hard time, and so when that’s causing the hard time and you have nowhere else to go, it just keeps getting worse and worse,” Joyce said.
The sophomore’s sadness swelled and festered like an inflamed sore. During weekly one-on-one meetings with her coach, Joyce expressed disappointment in the way she was playing, though she didn’t tell him she was upset that he took away her starter status.
As Joyce’s coach’s “mind games” unintentionally mounted, her depression exacerbated. Her outlet—the sport she sought solace in—became the root of her anxiety and depression. The panic attacks became more frequent, and as a result of these panic attacks, Joyce would make many mistakes in practice to the point that she wasn’t sure if she even wanted to be there anymore.
The toll Joyce’s mental health took on her began to mount. Academically, depression “took over her life.”
“I was just going through the motions and trying to pass classes,” Joyce said.
Joyce’s depression spiraled out of control and got to a point in which she thought the world would be better off without her. Feeling like she was a burden to her team and a burden to all the people around her, Joyce thought she would be in a better place if she weren’t here.
“It feels like you’re never yourself,” Joyce said. “The things that make you happy don’t anymore. It’s just constantly thinking and second-guessing everything, which also makes it worse.”
When Joyce constantly felt depressed and contemplated resorting to “extreme measures,” she realized she needed to get help. She consulted her trainer, who recommended she speak with Dr. Doug Muccio, who serves as the sport psychologist for Kent State University providing performance enhancement and counseling for student-athletes.
She trudged up the Esplanade from the M.A.C. Center to the Deweese Health Center one day a week every week to meet with Muccio, who gave her “tricks” and mechanisms to cope with her depression and anxiety. He told Joyce to conceive acronyms in her head that she could say to herself in order to take her mind off things and taught her how to deep breathe. Joyce’s coach was sympathetic and tried his best to help Joyce implement the tools Dr. Muccio gave her to relax and breathe.
“[My coach] would say things like, ‘Hey, breathe. You're doing fine,’ or even when he gave me compliments and told me what I was doing right would help a lot,” Joyce said.
The most helpful thing Muccio did, though, was remind Joyce to play piano. Heeding Dr. Muccio’s advice, Joyce found other outlets through which to channel her energy and emotions such as playing the piano. Right now her go-to song is “Purpose” by Justin Bieber. Even studying serves as an outlet now, which Joyce never thought would happen.
Joyce tries to concentrate on something else to take her mind off the stress, such as that 5 Seconds of Summer song or that cute guy who caught her attention while traversing the Esplanade earlier in the day. Anything to divert her attention and put her mind at ease.
“When I can feel myself getting tense, I try to think of something else,” Joyce says.
Joyce’s sophomore year didn’t get any easier on her, though. She didn’t start a single game her sophomore year and her depression worsened. When Muccio’s mechanisms weren’t as effective anymore, Muccio referred Joyce to a psychiatrist this year, who decided to put Joyce on medication. She now takes Zoloft, an antidepressant prescribed by psychiatrists to treat depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, social anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
In an interview about mental health in general, Muccio said chemical imbalances in the brain play a role in depression from a biological perspective, but experiencing a major stressor such as moving away from home or losing a starting position on a team can significantly contribute to the onset of depression and/or anxiety.
“I think most athletes have to handle that adjustment—the transition between levels,” Dr. Muccio said.
When Joyce just needed someone to talk her through that transition, she confided most in her mother, Molly, whom she considers her go-to person when she needs to vent her stress and frustrations.
Molly was one of the few people Joyce wanted to Skype and talk to when going through a rough time because she didn’t want to share anything with the team and bring her teammates down. In spite of all her anxiety and depression, the last thing Joyce wanted to do was become a distraction, although she did find common ground with another teammate of hers who was going through the same circumstances. They bonded over their depression and would talk for hours after games.
Despite Joyce’s efforts to conceal her struggles from her teammates, the team’s supportive environment still keeps Joyce in high spirits during those times she’s feeling low. Joyce’s teammates couldn’t help but notice the panic attacks and did their best to pick her up when she was down, and she reciprocated their encouragement in return.
“A lot of my teammates have their own problems to worry about, so you’re kind of just fending for yourself,” Joyce said. “[The coaches] make it very clear that if you’re doing bad or if you’re off, you can’t show that to the team because they need to trust you.”
Oftentimes in sports, athletes are expected to be rigid and stonewall, almost emotionless when tackling the task at hand. In order to focus on the game, the practice or the goal, athletes are expected to internalize their personal problems for the sake of the team, but sometimes those problems can seep through the cracks and overflow into other facets of your life, such as academics or athletics, Joyce said.
“Being an athlete, you’re not really allowed to show your emotions, so you have to learn to keep all your problems inside,” Joyce said.
Joyce says a lot of students who aren’t athletes assume everything comes easy to student-athletes, but such is not always the case.
“I know [from] talking to people who aren’t student-athletes, they think we have the perfect life,” Joyce said. “It’s like you get school paid for, you get all your clothes, you get travel and meals, but they don’t realize how it is and how it actually takes a toll on you.”
The team wakes up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. every morning to train and practice until at least noon. If the team has an away game, it will return to Kent State at 2, sometimes 3 in the morning. The team has to study and do its homework during a week full of games and watch countless hours of film to study up on the next opponent. The amount of time these athletes devote to their sport – not just on the field, court or mat but behind the scenes – can make for a long, arduous week.
Joyce now focuses on the positives and what she likes about her sport, refusing to dwell too much on the negatives or mistakes. As a pre-nursing major, Joyce now channels her energy into daily clinicals, which entails caring for other people instead of overly worrying about herself.
“You have to find the things that make you happy, and cling to them,” Joyce said.
Sports have been Joyce’s life, but in two years, that life will end when she graduates from Kent State and pursues a career in nursing. Joyce says she breathes better now because now she understands that there’s so much more to life than sport.
“So what if I’m sucking right now?” Joyce tells herself. “Five years from now you’re not going to remember having a hard time. It’s not going to be there forever, so don’t pour your heart and soul into it.”
Richie Muhall is a reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org