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Basketball Mental Health: Kayla McBride’s Journey

ByQueen Ballers Club|@queenballers| February 3, 2022
basketball-mental-health

Basketball mental health is a major key to happiness on the court. Conquering the inner game takes as much time and effort as the physical game. And yet, sadly, today it’s often under-invested in by athletic leagues.

In the latest episode of Nike’s Trained: Mental Health Miniseries Podcast, three-time WNBA All-Star and Minnesota Lynx hooper, Kayla McBride dropped by to provide insight into her mental health journey with host Jaclyn Byrer.

“I think the moment that you let your guard down with yourself first is the moment that you’re going to be able to find a break through with mental health.” she shared.

In May of 2020, Kayla revealed the severe mental toll that quarantine had taken on her, on her Instagram. Tons of people thanked her, and said they, too, were grappling with similar things and felt alone. Feeling inspired, Kayla penned a deeply personal essay for the Player’s Tribune, “It’s OK to Fall Apart.” In it she opened up about the trauma she experienced in childhood, the escape she found in basketball, and what happened when the pandemic shut the WNBA down.

In this podcast episode, the WNBA vet shares more about how she made her decision to talk about her mental health journey. She talks about how basketball was always an escape for her. She shares ways she’s been able to grow throughout the process. And gives ideas for how coaches and teammates can support other athletes’ mental health. So let’s get into it!

Why talking about basketball mental health is important

After a 10 day trip home in November, Kayla McBride is currently back playing overseas with EuroLeague in Istanbul. Which is one of her favorite cities in the whole world. Now that it’s her 7th season abroad, she’s found ways to adapt to the grind of the schedule, the travel and the routine.

“Obviously, games change, practice changes, time zones change – sometimes we’re in Europe, like Turkey, Russia, we’re all over the place. So I kind of have my own routine, my journaling, meditation, things like that. Really helps keep me balanced. Because it does get chaotic. I love what I do but it can be overwhelming sometimes. So just kind of finding my own ways to stay grounded, and continue to have that peace of mind has really helped me.” she said.

But just a few years ago, she struggled to stay grounded as Covid struck. Reminiscing on her journey, she shared, “When Covid started, our WNBA season got pushed back, everything kind of went upside down. And so when you have issues with mental health, not even as athletes, just as human beings, it can start to affect you a little bit more than normal. I felt myself feeling that, especially without basketball. And just all the things that kind of had accumulated in my relationships, with my family, bunch of different things. At the end of that season in the bubble I felt like it was important to share something on the mental health aspects.”

“The outpouring that I got after was amazing and you know I just wanted people to know that they weren’t alone. Because for so long I felt like I wasn’t able to open up about it. Cuz being an athlete you are always under the spotlight. And you have a lot of great things in your life, and you’re able to see the world, and make money. It seems easy sometimes on the outside. But there’s a lot of things that go into that, that start maybe from your childhood, but they also continue to grow as you continue to grow as a player, as a human, as a woman.”

“So just being able to share that, and express that, first and foremost with my family, and then secondly with the world, was huge. And like I said it helped so many people, and that was another thing that I really, really wanted to do was just kind of get my story out and be able to help people put their stories – allowing other people to have powerful moments within themselves from what I did was even more empowering. So people still write me to this day, saying how much my article helped them.”

At the time she wrote the article she was training at Mamba Sports Academy in Malibu, and the pandemic was still raging. While one might assume she was confident in her decision to share her story so publicly, she was nervous in the moment because she was still suffering from the same crippling anxiety.

“I was still going through all these emotions, and still trying to get the story out where I felt like it could help people. And I just remember being nervous. Because being vulnerable about your family and things like that can be very scary. And you know sharing that with them, and sharing things that everybody may not know. My dad comes overseas at least once or twice a year. People know him! And knowing that we’ve had this up-and-down relationship that has led to a lot of things that I feel it’s not easy. My mom gets defensive about it.”

“And so being vulnerable with them first and foremost, was probably the hardest part. But then breaking down that wall, and then getting into the substance of it, and just being able to kind of grow from it. It’s, like I said, scary. It’s overwhelming. It’s a very vulnerable place to be. But I think that’s where the most growth happens. It’s something that really pushed me forward in my own mental health journey. So I’m thankful for it.”

Kayla was able to find the strength to be vulnerable because she has repaired her relationship with her father. Finding forgiveness and understanding, led her to create an even closer bond with her family – “The most important thing to me.” she said. “If I’m not here playing basketball, I’m with them. And I think I get a lot of that strength from my family. Being able to have those types of conversations and knowing that they love me unconditionally.”

How basketball impacts her mental health

Basketball was always Kayla’s escape as a child. No matter the kind of day she was having, it was always a place she could go to find peace.

“I could go there: me, my basketball, the rim, and everything kind of disappeared.”

But all of that changed when Covid hit. Kayla struggled to find a new escape that was on the same level. It seemed impossible because of how much basketball meant to her. “And being able to have that competitiveness and just releasing it. Not necessarily in anger but whatever built up you could just kind of let it go there. Whatever, if it’s screaming, kicking the ball, something! Not having those spaces was really hard for me. I kind of always go back to this escape portion of it, and it is always that escape for me.”

“I genuinely love the game. I love the good days and bad days. I don’t think that playing year round is for everybody. But I genuinely love the process. I love playing. I love competing. I love being in those moments, those clutch moments. That gives me goosebumps. You know my hair is sticking up. I would do it for free. I watch it all the time. Anytime I’m at home NBAtv is on. I enjoy the game so much.”

However, even beyond Covid, at the professional level she’s playing now, it’s can be a bit of a double-edged sword. The joy can quickly be taken from the sport, if she’s not mindful about it. “Especially when you get to this level, you’re constantly being looked at under the microscope. Even if you’re not trying to be. You’re constantly being compared to somebody, or this person and that person, especially through social media you’re seeing it all the time. And it’s so easy to buy into that.”

“So for me basketball has just always been a sanctuary…But also finding that balance too. Finding things you like to do outside of it and keeping that balance. Doing my journals, painting, music, cooking, baking, all of those things. I don’t know if I would have tapped into those things without being overseas and having all this isolated time.”

“My relationship with basketball just keeps growing. I keep falling in love with it more and more every day. Even my mom, she hates it every time when I leave but she knows how much I love basketball. So she never really can say too much. And I only get to be a professional athlete for so long too, so I just try to optimize that opportunity as well.”

Coaching at Notre Dame rather than going overseas

In 2019 Kayla made the decision to coach at her alma matter Notre Dame, rather than play overseas for the first time.

“The end of the 2019 [WNBA} season was probably one of my most anxious moments. I wasn’t at this point where I was talking about it as much. Obviously the pandemic hit a couple months later so it was just like boom! But that’s probably one of my more anxious moments. It was just a lot. I felt like I was overtired. That was 6 years in a row that I had just been playing year round. And everything was kind of just hitting me at once. Not only in basketball world. But in my personal world, my relationship world. Everything was just caving in and it felt like.”

So she turned to the last place that had brought her comfort: being at Notre Dame and playing for Coach Muffet McGraw. “Being able to just kind of throw myself into something and just get lost in it.” was a blessing she reflected.

“I think that opportunity kind of presented itself at a perfect time. Where I felt like, ‘Man, I’m tired like mentally, physically,’ my mental health wasn’t the best. I was constant going back and forth, anxiety attacks. It was bad. And when I go back there, I was able to kind of slow down. I was still working out. I was still around basketball every single day. But it was like the joy part of it again. And I was able to be in the gym with the girls, learn.”

Being around the game in a new capacity, and watching the girls’ growth, helped instill a renewed love for basketball in Kayla. So much so, that she knows it was the right decision for her at the time to skip the overseas salary.

“But I missed the hell out of basketball. And I realized so much from being there with those girls. I was them. You know, I was a  20 year-old kid playing for Coach McGraw, and I remember putting that jersey on. And it made me miss just being able to do it for myself. I think if anything, me not playing that overseas season was the best thing that could have happened to me. Because when I came back, I remembered how much I appreciate the game and that wouldn’t have happened without Coach McGraw, her staff, and those girls. They brought that back out of me. Where I felt like I’d lost it. So I’m very appreciative of that. Obviously that was Coach McGraw’s last season,.. it kind of just happened that way. But you know I have so much love and respect for that program.”

However, coaching isn’t something she expects to return to anytime soon. While it was her first time coaching at the college level, and she enjoyed it, she likes being on the court too much for now.

“I definitely enjoy being on the court more than being on the sideline not having any control. I don’t know how coaches do it. I wanted to be out there so bad.”

As for a future on the sidelines she says, “Yeah I guess eventually that would be cool. My sister’s a grad assistant at Duquesne. But, she’s the coach of the family. I still love playing way too much.”

Basketball mental health techniques for better days

These days, Kayla puts lots of practice into maintaining her mental health. From journaling to affirmations, here are a few techniques she uses.

“I remember when my anxiety was really, really terrible. When I was waking up it’d feel like there was like a weight sitting on my chest. And I know that when I’m releasing these things, you know doing my journal, my meditation, doing the things that allow me to kind of free myself from these small weights, that’s when I find myself in these really great spaces.”

“Sometimes we get so caught up in our schedules, and where we’re supposed to be. But also not being afraid to break my routine if I’m feeling a different type of way. If I’m tired, laying down and watching Netflix might be the best thing for me to do today. Or maybe going outside, taking a walk, doing something for me. Finding ways to keep those happy phases as long as I possibly can. All the while doing the things that I know always contribute to my mental health.”

“Being able to kind of bring myself back to that moment. Reminding myself whether it’s affirmations, things like that, but also giving myself the benefit of the doubt too. Because I have grown so much. If my body’s telling me something, if my mind is telling me something, to listen to it. And that’s maybe not something I would have done before. Because it was always this competitive thing: me versus me. And I don’t look too far ahead and I don’t look too far back. I can just be in this moment. And I think that’s been the best thing for me and my growth.”

Though it’s taken experimentation, advice from experts, and support from family and friends for her to discover what works best for her.

“It’s trial and error. I do love therapy and that was something I started in the bubble. It was over the phone. But it was a way for me to hear feedback on what I was actually feeling in the moment. I think that’s huge, huge, huge. Especially when you’re first starting to work through these things.”

“I’m not necessarily the type of person that’s going to journal every day, not for 20 minutes or things like that. But that’s something I had to learn. Because there was a point where I was writing stuff down and then I was like ‘Man, first thing in the morning trying to write things down!’ Well, now I found this 5 minute journal where it’s like ‘OK, 3 things in the morning, 2 things at night.’ But that’s something I had to learn about myself.

“And I think being able to figure out that it’s not necessarily just one thing that’s going to work for everybody or one thing that’s going to work every day.”

“And then my biggest thing, and my sister helped me with that a lot, she is somebody who’s very intuitively connected in self-care and things like that…She’s very outspoken very honest…she’s someone that’s really been helpful to me in being like if this is how you’re feeling, take care of it – don’t wait. My teammates are always great, my parents too. I have a great support system so it’s kind of a little bit from everybody. They all give me something different. So I’ve been very fortunate for them in this journey too.”

Now Kayla works daily, mindfully to optimize her mental health.

“You know today is one of the better days. I get to have a game day in two days. My routine is going well. The weather’s been beautiful. So just taking in all the positives. Obviously sometimes you have aches and pains, and things like that, that can bring you down. But just being more consistent with the things that make me feel good. And still just doing those small things every day. Whether it’s a cup of coffee with my favorite creamer. I bring my creamers over here every time cuz they don’t have these Coffee-mate creamers.”

“Finding these little details that just kind of uplift me right away. But this is probably some of the most consistent happiness that I have felt in a while. So I’ve been thankful for that. And thankful for the people that have been here through that, cuz they get the good part of it too.”

How do you love yourself unconditionally?

And while today’s a good day, in a world filled with pressures of social media comparison, and where athletes are reduced to a mere stat line the feeling can be fleeting. Here’s how Kayla finds her inner love and strength.

“I think first and foremost just forgiving yourself, for not handling things the right way, for being human. I think sometimes we hold so much in being perfect, or being like what we see on social media, or being like this, being like that – that sometimes we don’t appreciate ourselves for being exactly who we are. So forgiving myself and loving myself with all the flaws and things that may not be perfect about myself. Loving me first is always number one.”

Beyond relying on herself, she’s also built a support system of friends and family. “But also finding others that love you without condition. That’s another thing. Finding that support system that when you’re not having a good day, if you need to cry, and listening and understanding and being there and picking you up when you’re down, or being honest has really taken me to another level. Because growing up the way that I did it wasn’t always easy to trust people with my feelings. So when you find these people that are able to love you without conditions, it opens up a whole other realm of trust and love and I think that it’s so, so important, especially where the world is under a microscope in this social media world, to just always find time for yourself.”

She recommends finding the time to remember how much you’ve grown, and how much you’re going to continue to grow. Because the most happiness you can find is in the process itself.

“Like I said in my article, mental health isn’t a game that you win or lose, it’s a journey. So when you look back on this whole journey you realize that’s the best part. You’re finding ways to just continue to grow, and take these little baby steps forward: 1%, 1%, 1%, and then you just keep finding these people that keep adding to your 1%. Now it’s 2%, 3% every day that you’re gaining.”

“There is no end goal. Being happy consistently is the goal. And feeling safe in my own skin. And allowing other people to feel safe in their own skin: loving other people without conditions. That’s the goal, and that’s a constant journey, and I think it starts within yourself.”

In terms of how investing in her mental health has changed her as an athlete, she said the difference is night and day.

“Oh gosh, I think it’s allowed me to see the game in a different light. See myself first without any judgment and understand that I’m not perfect and I can’t be 100 for 100.”

Her words are words for any athlete to embody.

“I can’t be this person or this person or that person. I can only be me. And what I bring to the game is enough. And knowing that I consistently bring the best that I possibly can every day. It’s just made the game so much more fun for me. And I’ve been able to get so much more joy out of it.”

“Because it is about winning and losing, because you know as a competitor I love to win. But it’s so much more about the growth that I see in myself on a daily basis. It’s so much fun for me, and I don’t ever want it to stop being this fun. It’s not about the anxiety part or making or missing shots. So if I miss my first two shots, I’m just going to shoot the next three. I probably didn’t have that mindset three years ago.”

“But taking those steps in my mental health journey and just my journey as a woman, my journey as an athlete, has allowed me to just kind of enjoy the game for what it is. But as much as I love and respect this game, I just want to be able to put as much joy and love out there on the court as I possibly can. And then that’s just kind of opened up a whole other realm of me just kind of enjoying the game. Instead of being pressed about the game.”

Now Kayla is seeking to help others in similar situations.

Advocating for other athletes’ mental health

When Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open, declining to report for media sessions, Kayla spoke up to defend her.

“Yeah I think I know what it feels like to feel overshadowed by the expectation to perform. And trying to battle with your competitiveness in your real life. It’s super hard to put into words, but having to choose – we shouldn’t have to choose. Because Naomi is a human being, a person, before she’s an amazing tennis player.” she said of her decision to say something.

“And it’s so powerful to choose yourself over a game, over something you get so much admiration for. Because at the end of the day her value comes in who she is not what she does.”

“And I think that’s what we’re all striving for as athletes, is to be able to have both. But sometimes it’s just so outweighed because of what we do. You think about DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love, speaking up while you’re in the spotlight can be so detrimental. Because you’re going to get negative comments. And we’re so vulnerable in social media world to these comments that it can be harder on your mental health than maybe it would have been before.”

Speaking out about mental health has also led Kayla to be able to connect with other athletes in new ways, despite having to endure the occasional keyboard warrior’s negative comment.

“I’m not sure that this person has actually spoken about it openly so I don’t want to name names. But I’ve had a teammate, since I came out with the article, that has reached out to me multiple times, dealing with the same anxiety and the pressure to perform. And like I said, being able to help somebody love themselves first without conditions has been really great. And we’ve bonded over that…Just knowing that I’m able to help somebody maybe a little bit younger than me who’s going through something completely different – different type of trauma – but similar effects on the game and how they feel about themselves, has been amazing. It’s very gratifying, obviously, and hopefully they can help somebody else, who can help somebody else, and that’s the whole thing. Us being great humans to each other – super gratifying.”

How common are mental health disorders in athletes?

Up next, host Jaclyn Byrer shared the results of a study she read recently. It was on 186 elite Canadian athletes. And it showed that nearly 42% of the athletes met the criteria for having one or more mental disorders. It said that elite Canadian athletes may even be at increased risk for experiencing mental disorders compared to the general population. One of the reasons was because athletes are valued by their ability to perform. So if their experience is not up to standard it can affect their very existence.

Kayla responded, “Yeah it’s so crazy, it’s like a trigger. Because since we’re in 4th grade we’re trying out for these AAU teams. And they’re just studying our every move. And it’s like this person’s more athletic, and then this is like what you’re triggered to know and understand as you continue to get older. And then you get cut by these teams or you’re not good enough for this team or you’re not this and you’re not this. And then you’re like grinding to get to this point, and then now you become a college athlete and you’re just not good enough for the pros or – we’re striving for this perfection and we’re striving for this acceptance of being good enough. Living up to our hype.  Living up to what we’re supposed to be. And that can be super stressful.”

It can be detrimental to not only yourself, but also the relationships you have with other people, in your family. Some people get these pressures from their parents. Some people are getting these pressures from their coaches, from their friends. So it’s constantly like battling yourself with yourself – like your athlete self and then your real live self that you’re living with on an everyday basis. In reality there’s just one of us, we just do multiple things.”

“And I’ve seen people come in and out of the league, and I’ve seen people go through things, personally, and it can take a huge toll on you and your mental and your physical you know the amount of stress that we put on our bodies day in and day out is ridiculous. Especially in the WNBA. We’re playing year round – NBA, they’re playing 82 games in a season. Like that’s crazy – not even including playoffs. So it can be so stressful, and at the end of the season you’re just looked at as a stat. Like okay 14.7 points, 7 points, 3 points, 2 assists – do you know I’m saying? Not to mention all the things that you were going through as a human being. So does it surprise me? No. It breaks my heart actually.”

“But I think that it just has to be something that we have to be more open to talk about. And how we manage it, how we manage these kids from even when they’re a young age: losing and winning. And not making a team and making a team. So I think that being an elite athlete takes way more mental than physical. And that’s just a testament to how much it actually is mental from the time that we’re young, to become elite athletes.”

“And how important it is to just keep building on who we are as people, and not just as athletes. Anytime I go talk to kids, whether they’re 8th grade, 9th grade, 6th grade I say ‘Your attitude is everything – how you approach things. But also just take care of yourself. You know, just remember that you’re not just makes or misses, or turnovers or missed shots, missed free throws. You are a human being first. and just keep finding that balance you know. If there’s other things you want to do. Then put everything that you have into that.” Because I think that sometimes as athletes we just focus so much on being athletes that we forget all the other talents that we have to bring to this world.”

Kayla also has some ideas on what coaches can do to help make the environment safe and provide resources. “I think especially the school system making sure that these kids have some sort of access to these types of resources where they can just talk to somebody….And [coaches] being able to listen too. I think that’s the biggest thing is sometimes we listen to respond, instead of listening to understand. And I think just as a coach knowing that you have these athletes at all different levels, just making sure that we’re listening to understand and listening, hearing them. Because sometimes it’s right in front of your face. And you’re so concerned with them performing or being at their best, you’re not hearing what’s really going on. So just hopefully being able to provide those types of resources: a sports psychologist, a guidance counselor – anybody that can just come in and be available to them.”

She also shared a few ways teammates can better support teammates’ mental health.

“I think we as the WNBA are very open and inclusive about a lot of things, especially mental health. Which I’ve always appreciated because everybody obviously saw my article. Just having that reception of ‘I see you. I hear you. I don’t need to know everything. But I see you and I hear you.’ I think that’s just something that we have to do as humans, is that I see you, and I hear you, and you’re appreciated and you’re loved.”

“Just being like ‘Hey, are you OK?’ or ‘Hey, let’s get together.’ ‘Hey, let’s have dinner.’ ‘Hey, Just come over, we’ll just – taco night.’ Something! A way for casual conversation to turn into a place where it just feels safe to talk about things has always been huge for us in the WNBA, and then overseas. So being receptive. Is the biggest thing. Cuz everybody has their different way of saying what’s really going on. Some people are closed books, other people are open books. And it’s just finding your way of understanding people and just allowing them to talk about things when they’re ready to.”

In terms of how she thinks the basketball industry can prioritize mental health as much as they do the physical health, she believes it’s a process. She knows that steps are being made – that mental health is being talked about way more than it was 20 years ago – but can continue to be made.

“I think the more we talk about it, the more we put it out there, the more resources are going to show up for these athletes including myself. I remember being in the bubble and all I had to do was jump on a phone call, and there was a therapist to talk to me. That’s how readily available it should be, across all [sports] platforms – men and women. And I’m not saying to be completely vulnerable if you’re not ready, but finding ways to either hear out people’s stories or share your own is another way that I think you can just affect so many different people.”

Keep working at your basketball mental health journey

Today, Kayla’s advice for those struggling with mental health is to know you’re not alone. “Everybody’s journey is different. It’s OK that you don’t feel OK right now…But I think constantly trying to fight yourself is the hardest thing you can do. And I think the moment that you let your guard down with yourself first, is the moment that you’re going to be able to find a breakthrough in mental health.”

“And it’s not necessarily easy. It’s not necessarily an overnight process. But the process is worth it. Even in your moments where you don’t feel OK. Allow yourself to feel the feelings, and push forward. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Just take it one day at a time…Your story is just as important as anybody else’s. So make it the most important thing for yourself.”

Her main takeaways for listeners?

“Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to share. Don’t be afraid to open up about the things that you’re really feeling. Sometimes we get so blocked off, like ‘Well people aren’t going to understand; nobody understands; I’m not ready; I’m not this; I’m not that.’ But when you’re feeling those is probably when you’re the most ready. And so don’t shy away from the things that you’re feeling. Your journey is worth it. You deserve the best version of yourself and your mental health, and everything. And everybody deserves happiness.”

Voices like Kaylas are so important. We hope her continuing to talk about her process inspires others to focus on mastering the inner game and unleashing their best selves — both on and off the court. Up next, learn more about getting started on your mental health journey with basketball mindfulness.

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