By Jim Williams
Special to S.F. Examiner
We are taught that the only way to succeed in sports is to be mentally tough, to not show any vulnerabilities and above all, to be a warrior. The reality is that athletes — from Little Leaguers to professional stars — are human. They suffer from mental illness just like the rest of us, but the pressure to hide it is something that — until recently — was as big a part of sports as keeping score.
Now, though, players are starting to openly share their stories about overcoming depression, fear, suicidal thoughts and all of the other problems that the fans in the stands or those watching on TV at home can relate to. Now, all of the major professional sports leagues encourage players to seek help.
The NBC Regional Sports group has produced one of the most powerful, impactful and brilliant sports documentaries in recent years, entitled “HeadStrong: Mental Health and Sports.” Debuting Friday night on NBC Sports Bay Area., replaying Sunday on NBC Sports California at 10:30 p.m. and replaying throughout the month, “HeadStrong” is masterfully crafted in a way that the only voices you hear are those of the players who share their struggles and how they battle their demons on a daily basis.
I had a chance to watch the show and I recommend that you watch it with your family. It is, at times, so raw as to be tough to watch, but seeing these elite athletes like the Warriors’ Kevon Looney, the Oakland Athletics’ Marcus Semien, Sharks’ Joe Thornton and Jamie Baker, former Giants coach Tim Flannery, and former 49ers star and NFL Hall-of-Famer Charles Haley tell their stories is a life lesson appropriate for Men’s Health Awareness Month.
“Our goal was to give athletes who wished to discuss their mental issues a platform to bring those stories to life,” said Ted Griggs, the program’s executive producer who was formerly a part of NBC Sports Bay Area. By allowing viewers to see those stories we hope that both men and women will not fear confronting their own mental health issues.”
In the last 10 years, teams in every major professional league — not just in the United States, but worldwide — have hired not just sport psychologists and life coaches, but other mental health professionals to help athletes deal with depression, anger issues and other life struggles. Beyond that, these mental health professionals help athletes better connect with their families, manage expectations and relate to teammates — all crucial in team-building.
One of the key parts of the documentary was showing that the first — and often the toughest — step in fixing any mental health issue is to first acknowledge that one exists.
“One of the other executive producers — NFL Star Brandon Marshall — really nailed it,” Griggs said. “He framed it by saying that physical health is best described as physical fitness, so why can’t we approach mental health by destigmatizing it and call it what it is: Mental fitness?
“Just like you might say during training, ‘I need to work on my endurance, or my core strength,’ if you were to say, ‘I am working on my emotions, or how best to manage my mental ups and downs,’ then perhaps it would be easier for people to accept and to implement.”
One of the more dramatic moments in the piece is the story of former Buffalo Sabres goaltender Clint Malarchuk, who had his jugular severed by an errant skate, but returned to play weeks later.
“After hockey that he almost took his own life,” Griggs said. “That he could not sleep because he was being haunted by these dreams about his near-death experience, was riveting.”
The fact that so many athletes were willing not to just go on-record about their mental health struggles, but to do it on camera, shows that the destigmatization of mental illness in the world of professional sports is moving forward, but it’s still slow work.
“The stars in the program really make our point: It is not a weakness to accept and to deal with mental health issues,” Griggs said. “No matter how well-off you think a person is, they are not immune to suffering from mental health issues.”
The San Francisco 49ers will host Seattle in a big game in the NFC West on ESPN Monday Night Football. Kickoff will be at 5 p.m. at Levi’s Stadium.
The Golden State Warriors have four broadcasts this week, starting with a home game Monday night against the Jazz. On Wednesday, it’s a quick trip to Los Angeles to face the Lakers, then Boston visits for a Friday night game at Chase Center, with all four games on NBC Sports Bay Area.
College basketball is here and that means lots of TV coverage for local teams. On Monday, San Francisco battles Yale, with tipoff slated for 6 p.m. on the WCC Digital Network.
Tuesday has Stanford hosting Long Beach State at 6 p.m. on the Pac-12 Network. Also on the Pac-12 Network on Tuesday, Cal welcomes UNLV at 8 p.m. On Friday night, Stanford hosts Santa Clara at 7 p.m. on the Pac-12 Network.