Gold medal-winning gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from the individual all-around competition at the Tokyo Olympics this week to focus on her mental health in a decision that reverberated all the way to the football fields in Allen Park.
The Detroit Lions reconfigured their player wellness department this offseason to add a mental health clinician, Dr. Michelle Garvin, and Lions coach Dan Campbell said Wednesday that move was done in part to give players “somebody they can talk to.”
“We thought it was important to have an outlet,” Campbell said. “Somebody that understands everything as it deals with that. And also it deals with sports psychology. Because it is, it makes a difference. … Sometimes you never know what’s going on and it’s easy to say, ‘Oh he’s not right. You can’t count on the guy.’ But there’s always a reason why.”
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Garvin, whose title with the Lions is mental skills specialist/clinician, spent four years as the director of clinical and sports psychology at Maryland and was a sports psychology consultant with the Baltimore Orioles, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Campbell said she addressed the team in its Tuesday night meeting before the start of training camp and has been “very visible” in Allen Park since she was hired.
“She will be on-site,” Campbell said. “Everything she’s doing, she’s trying to get to know the guys a little bit. Introduce herself, gain a little trust. It’s not like she is going to be, ‘OK, I’m just back here in this room and I’m not going to come out here.’ It’s not like that at all. She’s got access to our players.”
Garvin was unavailable Wednesday to talk about her role, which Campbell described as multi-faceted.
“There’s just so many things that come into play (with a player’s mental makeup),” Campbell said. “We felt like that was important to address that and have a resource on staff that can help with that. We’re all about top to bottom. Not only the athlete and making them a better football player, but most of that is between the ears. How do we help them with that? That is a credit to (general manager) Brad (Holmes), too. That was one of the things he really wanted to attack this offseason.”
Biles, a four-time gold medalist, also withdrew from the team competition Tuesday, citing mental health concerns.
“You have to be there 100%,” she told reporters in Tokyo, via ESPN.com. “If not, you get hurt. Today has been really stressful. … I have never felt like this going into a competition, and I tried to go out and have fun. But once I came out, I was like, ‘No. The mental is not there.'”
Lions center Frank Ragnow said being in the proper space mentally is “crucial” to an athlete’s performance, and he applauded the Lions for creating an in-house position to help athletes with their mental approach.
“Although it’s starting to get talked about more and more, it’s still not talked about enough,” he said. “I mean, if your mentals aren’t right, if your mind isn’t right, you can’t really do much. And my thing, it’s very optimistic to see that we’re making those strides but we still got a long way to go. Sports in general, really.”
Ragnow said simple things, like being able to return home after long days at training camp, which Lions players can do this year — they are not required to stay in the team hotel due to COVID-19 rules — help him cope with the mental stresses of football.
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Finding outlets outside the sport are important, too, he said.
“Fishing, anything like that on your off day,” Ragnow said. “Anything. Just finding that thing that just lets your mind clear up.”
Defensive lineman Michael Brockers said he considers proper mental health “a very important piece” to any athlete’s success.
“You definitely have to take time for yourself, either talk to somebody, have somebody to talk to,” Brockers said. “Look at me, coming, getting traded, coming to a new team. I definitely have to have some people, a support system behind me, letting me know everything’s going to be OK. Helping me out during moves and stuff like that. So the mental health part of it is definitely important.”
Godwin Igwebuike made his Lions debut at running back Wednesday after signing with the team as a safety. Igwebuike played exclusively defensive back in college at Northwestern, but was a finalist for Mr. Football as a high school running back in Ohio.
“He’s learning,” Lions running back D’Andre Swift said. “He’s doing a great job of learning. He’s real smart as well, just an all around natural football player. He looked good out there.”
The Lions have seven running backs in camp: Swift, Igwebuike, Jamaal Williams, seventh-round pick Jermar Jefferson, Michael Warren, undrafted rookie Dedrick Mills and fullback Jason Cabinda.