Athletes fall. It’s a generally accepted reality, a precondition to the highs derived from sports. For athletes, they accept that greatness is strewn with painful losses. For fans, they accept that they won’t be rooting for winners every single day. Their heroes stumble too.
A lot of them fall in ways we don’t get to see. And it is in that fall that these sporting heroes need help the most.
“As an athlete, you’re supposed to hold yourself in a certain way,” Tony dela Cruz, the Alaska Aces’ assistant coach told the Inquirer. “Athletes are socialized to be tough … The only emotion you’re allowed to display is anger, and maybe happiness—like laughter. You’re not supposed to show sadness or, I guess more emotional sides like that.”
The athletes’ environment makes the situation even tougher: A stage where inordinate stress to perform and deliver is inherent. There is little room to seek for help—let alone for something the athlete can’t even put a finger on.
A three-time Philippine Basketball Association champion, Dela Cruz has gone through the circuital path of working and winning. It was all routine for him, until he grappled with something within.
“When things don’t go right and you don’t know how to express it, it manifests in different ways. You go into this spiral,” he said.
“I started as a rookie in 2000. I would start to notice in seventh to eighth year, I would just feel the emptiness,” Dela Cruz, who was diagnosed with clinical depression said. “I was really, really happy with my wife and kids and the life I had. I was with Alaska, winning. I was on the national team. But I just noticed that I was always chasing something.”
“Outside looking in, I think people would say ‘Wow, you have the perfect life.’ But what’s a good life? And then I think everyday I would just question myself why do I feel so empty inside, why do I feel so negative?”
“I was at the bottom of the worst of the worst: I tried to commit suicide. Then I sought help,” he said.
According to Mona Maghanoy, a sports psychologist from the University of the Philippines, “athletic identity,” a role many sportspersons attach to, causes much of the inner confusion they deal with.
“It’s composed of how they see themselves, how they project themselves, what is the idea of who they are being tied to their physical abilities,” she said. “It might be congruent to who they really are, and it could also be heavily affected by external factors.”
“It doesn’t necessarily have to be a professional athlete,” said Dela Cruz. “[Whether] you’re an Olympian, you’re a college or high school athlete, there’s pressure there to perform.”
Maghanoy even suggested that student-athletes have it doubly tough: They are faced to deliver both the sporting and academic returns.
“Whenever their season starts, they focus solely on the games. Anything beyond that, they try to focus on after the season. Short-term ‘yung coping nila, and they do this until their resources—physically and psychologically—are depleted. That’s the time all the mental health problems come out.”
“They cope in life like they react in competition.”
Volleyball star Ara Galang knows how fragile an athlete’s mental health can be.
“A lot of things that happen in life are things we don’t expect,” she told the Inquirer in Filipino. At the peak of her collegiate career at La Salle, Galang suffered multiple ligament tears in her left knee.
“Suddenly, you’re back to zero. Plans are ruined. But more than the physical, it was the psychological that wore me out,” she said. “You have rehab to follow for the physical. For the mental, it’s all up to you.”
It’s not easy, though, to own up to having mental health issues, athlete or not.
A 2016 paper penned by Dr. Maria Luisa Guinto, also of UP, postulated that the sporting ethos of not seeking help is rooted on our image of man—especially among male athletes.
“The ‘macho’ image of the male athlete as tough and fearless predispose them to regard self-disclosure as an admission of weakness and as compromising their masculine image,” it said.
Dela Cruz is lucky to have figured things out and catch the spiral. And he wants to share what he learned.
“The analogy that I use was that, in any sport, if you sprain your ankle, and you ignore it, you try to run or walk or continue to play, you’re gonna alter the way you run and walk—you’re gonna compensate.
“The ankle will be saved because you’re altering, but then your calves begin to hurt, your knees start to be really compromised,” Dela Cruz said.
“That’s the same thing with your mind. If something happens to you, there’s a trauma. If you don’t address it, if you don’t get appropriate help, resource, you’re just gonna compensate.”
“And pretty soon it’s gonna come out—in the form of violence, maybe toward yourself. It might come out in the form of self medication, alcoholism, drug abuse. You never know. I’m not saying that’s what will happen. But it’s another part of your body that needs to get help,” he added.
Multi-time PBA Champion, All-Star and former National Team member Tony dela Cruz talks about the most difficult opponent he has taken on in his athletic career—one he grappled with off the court. #MindStrong
Posted by Inquirer Sports on Wednesday, March 27, 2019
Worse, mental health issues have to battle stereotypes.
“I think here in the Philippines, when you talk about mental health, people automatically think you’re crazy. And that can’t be,” Dela Cruz said.
Marcus Manalo, one of the most sought-after sports psychology consultants, who has done work with amateur squads, pros and even national teams, can’t say it enough: “Get help. Talk about your feelings with someone. Sometimes, athletes won’t notice something is wrong so coaches have to be on the lookout for signs. Be sensitive and patient.”
Athletes fall. And when they do, they should learn to reach out for a hand to help them get up. Especially for the falls that no one else sees.