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GCU Club Swimming opens up about mental health

Antelope Pool
March 5, 2021

Lopes meet to discuss real-life problems, show support

By: Julie Laugel/GCU Club Sports Writing Staff

Leave your emotions at the door. Toughen up. Focus on your game.

While many athletes grow up consistently listening to coaches telling them to put their emotions aside in order to be successful on the playing surface, this habit of repressing emotions often translates into their personal lives as well, making it difficult to open up about real-life issues and sensitive topics.

“As athletes, we look up to role models and see them as strong individuals and think we need to be that way, too,” said Lopes’ Head Swimming Coach Jeremy Phung.  “Too often, athletes put on a façade, so for any mental health issues, they’re told to push these feelings down and be this strong athlete, so they don’t share these things or tell people about them.”

For the Grand Canyon University Club Swimming team, adding social distancing and COVID-19 to the other demands and challenges of being a student-athlete has had many individuals feeling alone and isolated with their problems. After hearing of multiple athletes struggling with personal and mental health issues, the Lopes decided to come together to share their problems and experiences with each other in order to feel heard and get support and prayers from their teammates.

“Many of the athletes would share their problems with me, but I felt like they weren’t getting the right support,” said Phung. “They didn’t realize that other people on the team were struggling through the same things. The athletes go through so much with their teammates and see them every day, so being able to have that support foundation – on and off the field – is so vital. I wanted to bring them together because I felt like a team comradery was lost this year, since we couldn’t get together in large groups.”

The first meeting was held at the end of January with an open concept, allowing the athletes to volunteer to share or speak as they felt comfortable.

“People were very slow and timid at first to get up and talk, but the moment that someone heard someone else say something they were struggling with as well, we started to see more and more people volunteer to get up,” said Lopes’ sophomore and student leader Eric Allen. “After people realized they weren’t alone with their problem and other people were struggling with the same things, we started seeing more of a reaction.”

A wide range of topics were discussed in the meeting, including homesickness, the inability to travel back home, holiday isolation, academic struggles, health issues, and feeling discouraged after getting back into the pool since they are not their same skill level they were at before COVID-19.

“While we were encouraging everyone to be physically distant, a lot of people were relationally distant and felt disconnected from one another,” said Allen. “Especially in the time of COVID, there isn’t a lot of social events or opportunities where we can get to know the team. We haven’t had those good bonding opportunities to create that relationship between our teammates. This meeting opened up an opportunity for people to lay out their troubles and express to the team things that are going on in their lives.” 

Among the many athletes who volunteered to share was junior Mia Manzo, who opened up about her recent struggles.

“I opened up to the team about some medical issues that I am overcoming and about my brother passing,” said Manzo. “I’ve never really opened up to anyone about these things, and they’ve been a big part of my life, so it was really nice to have everyone praying for me.”

The athletes left feeling more connected and validated because they realized they weren’t going through things alone.

“One of the girls next to me told me that she was struggling with similar issues,” said Manzo. “Before, it was a lot harder for me to go to practice, because I didn’t know anyone on the team, and it’s not easy to open up to people that you just met, so I think the meeting was really necessary.”

After seeing the positive impact that the meeting had on the athletes, the team plans to hold more.

“The biggest thing we got out of this is that we do have people that love us and want to support us,” said Phung. “It’s okay to reach out and be vulnerable. You don’t have to be the strong athlete that you think you have to be.”

Interested in GCU Club Swimming? Contact Head Coach Jeremy Phung for more information!