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Takeaways from the Athlete Leadership Connection Panel: “Keeping Your Head in the Game of Life”

Until recently, opening up about mental health has been taboo, particularly in the sports world where athletes have been discouraged from sharing their personal struggle.

Fortunately, the subject is becoming more and more open for discussion among athletes. Serena Williams has spoken publicly about her anxiety and Kevin Love recently penned a piece for The Players Tribune entitled “Everyone is Going Through Something.” Conversations like these are helping push the dialogue forward and erasing the stigma surrounding mental health.

At our Athlete Leadership Connection in October, we enlisted three of the top female athletes in the country — five-time Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin, five-time Olympic snowboarder Kelly Clark and 2016 Paralympian Scout Bassett — to discuss mental health in the athletic realm. Kate Fagan, ESPN writer and the author of a book about a collegiate runner who committed suicide following a battle with mental illness, moderated the panel in which Bassett, Clark and Franklin painted a picture of their own careers and how they continue to cope with mental health.

Here are six of the most relatable moments from the panel:

“It’s okay not to be okay”

In her introduction, Bassett hit on one of the most important sentiments when discussing mental illness: Acceptance. After describing her childhood growing up in an orphanage in China — then being adopted by a family in Northern Michigan in a county where she was the only person with a disability — she acknowledged the resulting anxiety she experienced.

“I’m excited to be here because for any of you who have ever struggled with the things we’re going to talk about today, I want you to know that it’s okay not to be okay,” Bassett said. “It’s okay to seek help. There’s no shame in any of that.”

“Success cannot only be measured by performance”

Clark, the winningest snowboarder of all time, recently published a book, “Inspired: Pursuit of Progress” in which she writes about the pressure she put on herself to succeed in the half pipe.

I’ve worked for the last 16 years to develop a healthy idea of success,” Clark said. “When we measure our success by our performance, it’s not always the healthiest … Develop who you are outside of what you do. Do not let your worth get tied up in your performance.”

“You never know what a person is going through just by looking at them”

Franklin, who said she was on top of the world in the 2012 Olympics but had the opposite experience in 2016, talked about how she communicated that with the people in her life and with the public.

“I felt like I had to keep up this image that I had been portraying for so long, and anything less than that was going to be unacceptable,” Franklin said. “Depression has thousands of different faces, and from the outside mine probably looked like a really happy face. In the culture of athletics, asking for help can sometimes be seen as a weakness. My process has shown me that asking for help is one of the greatest signs of strength.”

“We’re not at our very best when we’re isolated”

“In our culture, we talk about people who do things by themselves, we champion them,” Clark said. “I don’t believe that we’re our strongest when we do things by ourselves. In mental health, we use that same paradigm to overcome depression, anxiety, disappointment, fear, and we isolate ourselves. That is the most dangerous thing we can do.”

“Do what you know is good for you instead of avoiding what you know is bad”

“I think I found this most through my eating disorder,” Franklin said. “That has permeated all aspects of my life. It just started off as the foods that I was eating, but I realized when I focused more on what I knew was good for me, I felt so great that I was taking that time for myself to do things that I know were going to benefit me, that I know were going to make me better. Getting rid of those good and bad labels was such a huge thing for me.”

“You can’t help others if you don’t help yourself”

“I want my legacy to be about helping as many challenged athletes get involved with sport, get on the starting line,” Bassett said. “I can’t be the best version of myself, be the best ambassador if I’m not taking care of myself to be the very best I can be, not only as an athlete but as an advocate.”

The Women’s Sports Foundation would like to thank Scout, Kelly, Missy and Kate for their honesty and willingness to continue the increasingly important conversation about mental health in sport.