Why this matters
Even in triumph, the challenges foisted upon college athletes in the United States can be painful. In women's college basketball, which is often under-resourced and ignored on the national stage, NCAA champion Stanford struggled to enjoy the highs of a title season due to the pandemic and all that came with it.
Tears tumbled almost immediately, not all of them from joy. Red and white confetti fell from the rafters at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas, as the Stanford women’s basketball team collapsed into each other’s arms. Having just won Stanford University's first National Collegiate Athletic Association women’s basketball championship since 1992, the players were elated.
They also felt relief.
Playing through the coronavirus pandemic created profound mental and emotional health challenges for Stanford’s players, particularly when public health emergency measures forced them to embark on a nine-week road trip that ran from December 2020 to February 2021. While the team’s experience was seen by many as a case study of adaptability and resilience, the full story was more complicated. Behind the scenes, players struggled with isolation, loneliness, and fear. They suffered symptoms of depression and anxiety. At times, they felt trapped and silenced by internal and external expectations, and even gaslit by the notion that they should be grateful for the opportunity to keep playing basketball despite COVID-19.
As a group, Stanford’s players were deeply grateful for the chance to compete – but not at any emotional cost.
How do I know this? I played basketball at Stanford from 2016 to 2020, and the majority of the players on last year’s roster were my former teammates. Recently, I spoke with many of them about the pandemic season. Each was candid and asked to remain anonymous. I understood why. During my time on the team, I was an anomaly: a college athlete who spoke out publicly about her battles with mental illness, hospitalization, and a suicide attempt. And even then, I chose to avoid discussing more complex topics until after I graduated. Why? Because I was afraid.
Fear of speaking up – or out – plays a major role in the culture of elite college sports. Athletes are afraid of being seen as weak, fragile, undisciplined, untrustworthy, and ungrateful. But as the experience of Stanford’s players during the pandemic shows, that needs to change.
Life on the Road
When you’re a Division I-level athlete, your athletic identity is typically strong. You see yourself solely through the lens of being an athlete. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, so long as there are other filters with which to see life through – school, work, family, friends, and other passions. But what happens when these are restricted or removed altogether?
Stanford played its season-opener at home in Maples Pavilion on Nov. 25, 2020. Three days later, Santa Clara County announced that it was prohibiting all contact sports at least through Dec. 21. So the team left Palo Alto, embarking on a nine-week trip through six states, living and playing games in Las Vegas and Boulder, Stockton and Santa Cruz.
For the players, each day felt like an echo of the last. Practices felt harsher and more draining than usual. The ebb and flow of practices, games, and debriefs with coaches were no longer counterbalanced by the ability to pivot away from basketball. Life was confined to the court and hotel rooms. If basketball didn’t go well, it held the power to pollute the rest of their days with rumination – reliving one mindless mistake in practice to the point of apprehensiveness – simply because there was nothing else to hold on to.
Most of the team’s memories of this time are painful and fragmented. On the road, they were living out of suitcases. At “home,” a hotel in San Mateo County, they were just 45 minutes away from campus. But they couldn’t go back. They felt misplaced, suffocated by rigid rules. They couldn’t eat meals together. They were being watched relentlessly, every interaction and location. They felt those eyes everywhere. They were reprimanded for taking walks. They had erratic schedules for practice, class, and meals. Nothing was really next, because next was uncertain. When they asked questions, the answers were limited. Their trust in others started to fray.
The state of California was a COVID-19 hot spot – so there were no ice baths for sore bodies and few lifts to stay strong. They physically felt the effects of both. Their food options were limited, so they were hungry; sometimes, players nearly passed out from what felt like undernourishment. Per NCAA rules, sports participation is supposed to be limited to 20 hours a week. That time seemed to stretch into 50 hours, largely because the boundaries between basketball and the rest of life became arbitrary.
At one point, the team practiced in a dark and frigid gym, beset by power outages, slippery floors, and restrooms that didn’t work. They felt helpless. They had challenging, running-based practices after losses, something they knew was coming, something they had managed before. Only now those runs felt immeasurably more defeating. Off days were few, and they felt less like off days. Playing without fans – especially friends and family – perpetuated a sense of isolation. The team spent Christmas in a hotel, socially distanced from some players’ parents who had come to visit after testing negative for the virus.
Stanford’s academic requirements, specifically its major requirements, are difficult during normal times. The pandemic took everything a level up. The same four hotel walls framed weeks of Zoom video meeting backgrounds. There was no social interaction with professors or classmates, which made it harder to feel engaged, stay motivated, and learn. Because most class lectures were recorded in virtual format, they could be replayed anytime. The coaching staff saw this as an opportunity for increased scheduling flexibility, which made for irregular practice times. Players found themselves watching lectures and completing homework well into the night.
Mental and Emotional Impact
The Stanford players didn’t feel like themselves, though they thought they hid that well. Isolation wove through the team like a vine, as did a sense of being trapped. Unable to physically reach family, friends, and outside sources of support, they felt pressure to keep up neutral faces. But waking up in the morning was a struggle. They often felt mentally checked out, that they couldn’t keep going – couldn’t keep living like this. There were points where they could see the exhaustion leaking from their teammates, moments when they could feel each other's energy wanting to be anywhere else.
COVID-19 consumed everyone’s thoughts. Players were continuously nervous and hyperaware, worried that they, a teammate, or an opponent might test positive. If that happened, what would the long-term effects be? The virus felt like one more thing that they couldn’t control, ignore, or escape. Continuing to play could feel like a fight. There was always the looming threat of being shut down and never room for any mistakes. The team, and possibly the basketball staff travelling with them, continually felt like they were doing something wrong. During the NCAA Tournament, one of Stanford’s coaches reached out to the association requesting a walking path. The team needed mental breathing room. A path was provided – and restricted to a narrow, heavily-monitored area near the hotel.
The school tried to help. Stanford’s “happiness” professor, the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, became an incredibly kind and optimistic influence, relaying messages of purpose and perspective. Stanford’s sports psychologist was available if needed, and in truth she was – desperately. A few players tried to tell themselves if I’m still feeling this way by a specified date, then I will talk to a teammate or Stanford’s sport psychologist. Instead, they consistently concluded that it was better and easier to bury everything.
The Gratitude Trap
It’s no secret that mental health challenges have long been stigmatized within the culture of elite sports. Athletes are only beginning to speak openly about the burdens they carry. For the most part, they still are expected to shut up, suck it up, and grit their way through mental and emotional distress and pain for the sake of competing and winning.
Athletes are also expected to be grateful. Grateful for their talents, for their successes, for their scholarships, for the chance to be on television, for the opportunity to play and be admired for it. Stanford’s players were and are grateful for each of these things; at the same time, the expectation of gratitude fortified the stigma surrounding the symptoms of depression, anxiety, and panic that some players were feeling. Though never directly stated, the message some players took from the school was that if they were truly grateful, they had no business feeling the way they did.
In turn, that magnified the pressure to remain quiet. Who might perceive them as ungrateful if they told the truth?
Media coverage of the team had a similar effect. Everyone loves stories of overcoming adversity. But celebrating toughness and determination can come at a price. Responding to reporters’ questions, Stanford’s players laughed and made jokes about their pandemic experience. But privately, they felt they had no other choice. YouTube videos of the team’s pingpong tournament, held during the NCAA Tournament, reinforced this optimistic narrative. The players appeared to be having fun, making the most of a difficult situation, hurdling barriers, and growing closer.
What would happen if they couldn’t be brave? The players knew that no one wanted to hear about a mental health decline, about struggling to climb out of bed and make it to the court. So they didn’t talk about it. Months later, it’s still heavy, and they still don’t want to say anything publicly.
How We Can All Do Better
There are lessons to be learned from what Stanford’s players went through. None of these lessons are an attack on athletics or competition. They are an invitation for all of us to be better and, we can hope, healthier.
Stanford’s players are proud of each other, not only for how they performed on the court but also for the compassion they showed each other while carrying so much inside. For athletes and teammates, that compassion is essential. Everyone is going through something, and it is often shocking to hear what you didn’t notice – strong faces reinforce strong faces, cementing the assumption that if everyone else seems OK, then you should be, too.
But you don’t have to be. Being a great teammate comes first. Athletes can help each other by creating safe spaces and by protecting their teammates’ willingness to be vulnerable. As Drew Dudley states, the definition of leadership is “having the courage to use your story to free others from their fear.”
The same is true for coaches, schools, and the media. Exploring the truth can be frightening. It’s less uncomfortable when we begin with wanting to understand a story better—and eventually, it becomes an honor to be trusted to do so. Similarly, we cannot expect athletes to stand on a pedestal of mental toughness that doesn’t exist – and isn’t attainable – just for the sake of simple, uplifting stories. There are real people behind these stories, and their experiences seldom are entirely positive or wholly negative. Nothing about allowing your full range of thoughts and feelings to surface and take the space they need diminishes the joy, enthusiasm, gratitude, and love that go into winning a national title or just making it through a hard day of practice.
Though the pandemic was unique, the mental health challenges faced by Stanford’s players were not. At various points in their lives and careers, many athletes struggle with them, and then struggle to say something about it. But exploring these feelings with openness and honesty should be welcomed, without fear of repercussions or the assumption of ungratefulness. Vulnerability is the common root of character, courage, and grit, the very qualities we value in sports.
Across the world, basketball is relatively unique among team sports with the volume of women who play and coach in its ranks. Still, trends in the sport’s leadership don’t accurately reflect the athletes who put in the work each day on the court.
While a diverse crop of head coaches at HBCUs has not created a pipeline to the Power Five, new momentum behind women’s sports has helped carry women’s basketball to new heights. Can an exciting, outspoken generation of leaders in the sport turn it into a more equitable and popular avenue for women to thrive as leaders and athletes?