Allen Park — This week, the biggest story from the world of sports has been gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from both the team and all-around individual competitions at the Olympics due to mental health concerns.
Biles is just the latest in a growing number of high-profile athletes to publicly address their mental health, following closely on the heels of tennis star Naomi Osaka, who withdrew from multiple majors this year to address some personal concerns.
Mental health in football hasn’t always been given the same spotlight, in part because the game is fueled by testosterone and masculinity. Players have long been groomed to bury anything that can be perceived as a sign of weakness.
But the Detroit Lions are trying to be on the forefront of taking mental health seriously, adding Dr. Michelle Garvin to the staff this offseason as a Mental Skills Specialist/Clinician.
“I think every year were a little more in tune to this,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “So much of the way that particularly football players have been raised, everything about the sport is that you show no weakness. For forever, not knowing what it was or wasn’t, when you had a mental issue, it was you’re weak. So you don’t say anything, but yet if you just got a little bit of help and had the right resources around you, you could live up to your potential and then some. I think there has been so much more that’s come to life on this. That was one of the reasons we hired Dr. Michelle Garvin.”
Garvin previously worked at the University of Maryland as the Director of Clinical and Sports Psychology. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Princeton and received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from George Washington University.
Campbell credited general manager Brad Holmes for identifying the need for the role on Detroit’s staff.
“We thought it was important to have an outlet, somebody they can talk to, somebody that understands everything as it deals with that, and also it deals with sports psychology,” Campbell said. “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.
“Some of it is physical, some of it pertains to just not getting the playbook,” Campbell continued. “But what about the issues that are deeper than that that we need to get to? What’s going on at home? Did somebody come back into his life that was not good for him? There’s just so many things that come into play. 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?”
Campbell said Garvin spoke to the team on the eve of training camp and is still in the process of getting to know the players, making herself visible and available for those seeking counsel.
Team leaders are reacting positively to her presence.
“It’s definitely a very important piece,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “You definitely have to take time for yourself, whether that’s talk to somebody, have somebody to talk to.
“Look at me man, getting traded, coming to a new team, I definitely have to have some people, a support system behind me letting me know everything is going to be OK, helping me out during moves and stuff like that,” Brockers continued. “The mental health part of it is definitely important.”
Center Frank Ragnow agreed.
“It’s crucial, man,” Ragnow said, when asked about supporting players’ mental health. “Although it’s starting to get talked about more and more, it’s still not talked about enough. If your mentals aren’t right, if your mind isn’t right, then you can’t really do anything. It’s very optimistic to see we’re making those strides, but we still got a long way to go in sports in general.”
Throughout his time in Detroit, Ragnow has been open with his emotional struggles coping with the sudden passing of his father, John, several years back. This past week, Ragnow participated at an event at Ford Field that worked directly with grieving children who had lost parents.
“This was important to me because I am a grieving kid,” said Ragnow. “My dad died when I was 20, and the process was really hard. I’ve felt very alone. It was five years ago now and it gets easier, but there will always be tough moments. Today is about hearing the kids’ stories and learning about what they have experienced.”