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The Invisible Opponent

Student-Athletes Find Strength in Confronting Mental Health Challenges

By Doug Dull

Maxwell Costes and Lizzie Colson

Photo by John T. Consoli

Maxwell Costes, a junior on Maryland’s baseball team, and Lizzie Colson, a senior lacrosse player, have found mental-health support and learned coping skills in Maryland Athletics' Clinical and Sport Psychology Program.

Once in a while, Maxwell Costes reaches down and touches the ground … and grabs a little grass from the baseball field.

That’s how he stays grounded.

It’s a tool Costes, a junior on Maryland’s baseball team, has learned from the Maryland athletic department’s Clinical and Sport Psychology Program. It’s a tool the junior from Baltimore has learned to manage not just issues away from the game, but a method that led him to be the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and a third team All-American pick last spring.

It’s also a tool to help him stave off thoughts and feelings that led him to a panic attack during a road trip to Minnesota in the spring of 2019. 

“I had a combined panic and anxiety attack at the same time,” said Costes. “I think the term ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ is most effective with what happened in Minnesota.

It was a combination of the fact that I was really stressed about school, I wasn’t doing well in baseball at the time, and was going through very bad relationship problems too. I think it just got to a point where I just didn’t know what to do because I don’t know how to solve all of these things. I’ve always been the type of person that just ‘handles things’ and I’m the type that has a lot of trouble asking for help, and that experience really changed that.

“I had a friend that went to my sister’s high school who ended up calling the national help hotline for me. They sent people out who were in the area … in Minnesota. They came to see me and ask me how I was doing.”

With help, that crisis passed, and his coaches suggested Costes consider the possibility of seeking more help.

“It wasn’t like ‘you have to do this or you’re not going to play.’ But my coaches care about me as a person first. They understand that baseball is a stressful thing … They said, ‘you need to get help because you’re going to burn yourself out.’

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that it’s OK to feel the way I do.”

Costes credits skills like mindfulness and acceptance he’s learned from program director Dr. Michelle Garvin with helping him cope.

“I feel better equipped to deal with those emotions that come up every now and then,” he said. “The thing with mental health that people don’t understand is that it’s not like a yes or no thing. I still have mental-health struggles to this day. I fully admit that.

“But now I have the resources and knowledge and wherewithal to know how to deal with it. So that was the difference between before Dr. Garvin and after … now, I know how to deal with this. I know what sets me off. I know what to do when I’m feeling down.”

His confidence off the field has given Costes a voice beyond baseball and a way to express his feelings about social issues that affected America in the spring. He joined with a high school friend – Noah Seth – to collaborate on an article about race and social injustice titled “The Hitchhikers’s Guide to Social Consciousness.”

“Noah had put some thoughts out about what was going on in the world at that time,” Costes explained. “I said I’ve got some stuff I want to add to it. So it basically was an amalgamation of what the two of us had written.”

Costes says he also has worked on feeling like he deserved to be on the Terp squad despite not having the typical on-field development that comes from camps and clinics.

“Another sort of mental block I had to overcome was the idea of belonging,” Costes said, noting his class at Gilman School in Baltimore was only around 95 students. 

“I’m not like most of my other teammates in that I never played any travel baseball really. I grew up practicing on blacktops and threw balls against walls to practice fielding.

“So when I got to college, I had to overcome this idea that I really belonged and deserved to be playing at this level. That’s another big thing that changed to my sophomore year. I really started believing that I could be the best player on any field I walked on.”

That part has worked.

He led Big Ten freshmen in slugging (.500), RBIs (44), home runs (12), doubles (14) and total bases (101)—earning the conference’s top newcomer honor in 2019. In 2020, he was off to a blazing start, hitting .432 with four home runs and 15 RBI in a COVID-shorted 15-game schedule as a sophomore.


A Different View

There were times during her injury rehab that Lizzie Colson felt like an outsider. But her coaches and teammates needed her presence so much that, despite the fact that she’d miss being on the field for the 2020 season, she was voted a team captain.

Colson would miss the shortened 2020 season due to an ACL injury sustained in the summer of 2019 while training for Team USA.

She was a second-team All-American by Inside Lacrosse magazine in 2018 and a third-team All-America selection by the coaches association in both 2018 and 2019. Colson was an All-Big Ten selection as a sophomore and junior, helping lead the Terps to the 2019 National Championship. 

The injury forced Colson to see her role from a different perspective.

“I did have a pretty hard time with that,” she said. “I just didn’t really know what it was going to look like. I kind of felt like my role wasn’t super important. That’s honestly why I started meeting with Dr. Garvin, because I just started going in a spiral. I felt like I don’t really need to be a captain … a ‘no one really listens to me’ kind of mentality.

“But then fall ball started and my coaches were super inclusive of me and gave me kind of an undergrad assistant role.”

Colson took some of the freshmen and sophomores who weren’t playing much and worked with them.

“When you’re on the sideline, it’s a whole different atmosphere and it’s incredible. I got to see that. It was just a whole different point of view. I got super, super close with people.”

Her contributions from the sideline were just as impactful.

“One other piece I think sometimes is the social isolation related to injury,” said Garvin. “Even though you might be around, you’re not engaged in the same way. Especially in the early parts of the process, your teammates and roommates are going to be coming home, talking about what happened in practice.”

Colson, who plans to go into sports psychology after graduation, says there are both physical and mental sides of injury rehabilitation.

“I think a lot of people forget that you’re rehabbing your mind too,” she said. “Until you go through an ACL tear, it’s kind of hard to even relate. It’s hard to recognize how much you have to train your mind as much as training your body… Some days it’s more challenging from a mental standpoint than other days when it’s the physical part of it.”

She said some days it’s about small steps.

“One day for me, I was sitting on the training table and all I had to do was lift my leg off the table. When you’ve been an athlete your whole life and suddenly you can’t lift your leg, it’s physical, but at the same time it’s mental.

“You’re kind of thinking, how am I going to get back to playing? I’m never going to be able to do this. Your mind starts to kind of unravel.”

“Before I tore my ACL, I kind of set big goals and forgot about the small goals that get you to the larger ones,” said Colson. “But I think through the rehab process, you have to set small goals. You have to lift your leg off the table before you can run.”

“I think one of the hardest parts is when you’re back and you can do your daily life pretty typically,” said Dr. Garvin. “You’re done with crutches, you can walk, maybe you can even run. But the sport-specific things, you still feel really far away from getting back on the field. That can be a really challenging time.”

Dr. Garvin said there can also be anxiety about repeating the injury or whether a student-athlete feels they’re ready enough to compete again at a high level.

“We’ve got a great medical team and they’ve got so much support from the surgery, rehab, physical therapy and all of that is wonderful,” said Dr. Garvin. “As we started developing our program, we wanted to make sure we were getting them mentally ready to return to the field too, because being out for a while can be really hard.

“One of the biggest things we work on with student-athletes who are injured is the idea that it’s OK to ask for help. Our student-athletes are so used to doing everything for themselves, being so independent and not asking for help… kind of like the ‘rub some dirt on it’ mentality. One of the things we want to foster is this idea that asking for help is a strength.”


A Personal Story

The green ribbon Michael Locksley wears has purpose and deep meaning.

The Maryland football coach wears the ribbon as a symbol for mental health awareness. Prior to the Terrapins’ 2019 game at Minnesota, both the Terps and Gophers wore helmet stickers showing green ribbons, and both coaches wore ribbons that day.

During Mental Health Awareness Week in Oct. 2020, Locksley wore the ribbon once again.

The personal story for Locksley involves his son Meiko, who was 25 when he was shot to death in Howard County in September 2017. He was previously diagnosed with a mental health disorder, but it’s not known if that contributed to the homicide, which remains unsolved.

“It’s a priority for us as coaches and leaders to develop these young men mentally, socially and physically. The mental part is a big deal,” explained Locksley. “What’s difficult is that when a kid has a broken bone, everybody knows it and it’s easy to diagnose. Having an issue inside your brain is tougher to identify and that creates a lack of empathy from people.

“So we preach to our players to be aware of those types of issues. If you think there’s something wrong, there’s no shame in asking for help. We have great people on staff that they can talk to, whether it be a coach or trained experts in mental health. We want them to know that they have options.”


New Resources

Dr. Michelle Garvin came to Maryland Athletics three years ago to develop the Clinical and Sport Psychology Program. The program has close ties with various on-campus resources, including the UMD Counseling Center.

Licensed by the Maryland Board of Psychologists, Dr. Garvin graduated summa cum laude in psychology at Princeton and earned her masters and doctorate in clinical psychology from George Washington. She was also a doctoral psychology intern at the University of California, Davis.

She said the program strives to provide services to individuals and teams across all sports. Garvin said the program is providing individual services to about 40 percent of student-athletes on an annual basis.

She and her two-person staff also develop workshops that Terp student-athletes can access on demand.

“We’re talking about mental strength and mental fitness, and that’s a big component,” she said. “Performance is built up of technical skills, that’s built up from physical skills, and it’s built up from mental skills.

“What we’re starting to do, that mental-skill piece, we want to do a lot more of that at the team level. And also doing outreach and workshops, our student-athletes can be ahead of the game from that side.”

There are a number of issues regarding mental health that Dr. Garvin and her team are helping to address. They range from performance anxiety and self-esteem to more acute issues like body image and suicide prevention.

Coping skills and tools that relate to mental health are something she hopes Terrapin student-athletes can take with them after graduation.

“I always like to emphasize, here’s how we’re relating it to football, soccer, basketball or whatever sport,” she said. “We’re talking about on-the-field things.

“But how can you also take this and apply it to life, especially right now with so much going on? 

The idea of resilience, flexibility, and positivity can be applied in so many different domains.”

One such domain that Dr. Garvin and her staff have confronted recently is the uncertainty of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’re still providing all the individual services we have before, but we’re also seeing different concerns,” she said. “The fear related to COVID. Will we have a season?

“Motivation is challenging right now. The reward of being an athlete is competing, and sometimes that piece isn’t there. And often being remote, being motivated without that reward at the end is challenging.

“Thinking back on this past year, it seems like we’ve got two pandemics going on,” said Dr. Garvin. “We’ve got COVID and we’ve got racial and social injustice concerns. Being called upon to facilitate conversations within teams has been something we’ve stepped up to do.”

Dr. Garvin and her team have tried to create a welcoming, learning environment that serves as another step in a student-athlete’s overall development.

“Just as any other component of a student-athlete’s career, whether it be sports medicine, nutrition, academic support, strength and conditioning… We want mental health and performance to be a central part of it,” she said.

“You can come in and meet with us so you can be the best athlete you can be. You don’t need to come in because something’s wrong.

“You can, if something’s not going great. But that’s not what it has to be… We really want our services to be seen as that we’re here to enhance your overall well-being and performance.”


Someone To Talk To

Sometimes, it’s best to find a peer, teammate or friend to talk with. It can be easier to relate to someone of the same age and experience. That’s the premise around the program’s student-athlete mentors helping Maryland athletes.

Senior softball player Micaela Abbatine was one of the first of now more than 20 student-athlete mentors available to Terps on all teams. The mentors program is now in its second year.

“I’ve always been pretty interested in the performance side of mental health, like dealing with performance anxiety,” she said. “But it turned into so much more than that.

“I’ve already learned in only a year now that mental health encompasses so much more than just learning how to be a better student-athlete on the field and being able to perform in those clutch moments.”

Abbatine says there’s a strong sense that many of the skills being learned – wellness, mindfulness, relieving anxiety – will translate into some that will last a lifetime.

“It’s not just the performance side, but just overall well-being,” she said. “Sports are going to end sooner or later, and it’s important having a really healthy overall mental health you can take not only on the field but off the field into all aspects of your life.

“We’re more than just softball players and other players. We can take all the things we learn here, managing our mental health and things we learn from playing our sport into our professional lives.”

Dr. Garvin said the mentors have often served as a welcoming front door to her office’s programs.

“We see our student-athlete mentors as the liaison between the student-athletes in our programming,” she said. “So we want them to get out there and help their fellow student-athletes understand what we’re doing and help connect them to resources.

“Sometimes student-athletes who don’t know us personally might feel more comfortable reaching out to one of their peers to get connected with us, as opposed to coming to us directly or going through another staff member.”

Getting into the program is the first step toward learning about important resources and moving in a positive direction.

“It’s okay not to be okay,” said Abbatine. “As student-athletes, we often have a lot on our plates, and it’s easy to struggle and feel as if you’re not at your best. The student-athlete mentors and all the other resources the sport psychology team offer are here to let you know that even if you’re not okay, you definitely don’t have to stay that way.

“Struggling with mental health as a student-athlete, being able to admit it and seek out resources isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of incredible strength.”

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