Less than 24 hours before her team’s biggest series of the season began, Patty Gasso retired to a quiet room at her house and clicked open a Zoom link.
She wasn’t talking strategy with assistants or watching film of opponents.
She was serving as a panelist on mental health in athletics.
Dubbed “Coaches + Mental Health: Creating Mentally Well Spaces in College Athletics,” the webinar Wednesday evening was hosted by OU. It was moderated by folks from the psychological resources office in the athletic department.
But it was spurred by Gasso.
“I’ve been shaken,” the OU softball coach said. “I’ve been shaken, thinking, ‘What if I was the coach on the other side? What could I do for that coach? Do they need help? Are they getting help?’
“There’s just a lot of questions that I have.”
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As many have fixed on what’s been happening inside the lines at Marita Hynes Field during the Bedlam series, many in the college softball world are focusing on what’s happening in the hearts and minds of players across the country. The suicide of James Madison catcher Lauren Bernett has staggered the sport. Last season, she was part of the Dukes’ magical run to the Women’s College World Series, catching for breakout star Odicci Alexander, but this season, Bernett was having her own breakout.
On Sunday, April 24, she finished a monster weekend, going 4-for-4 with a homer and two doubles in the series finale against Drexel. She hit .778 and drove in seven runs during the three-game set.
On Monday, April 25, she was named Colonial Athletic Association player of the week.
On Tuesday, April 26, she was gone.
Her final at-bat was a home run.
“Really sad,” OSU coach Kenny Gajewski said earlier this week as tears well in his eyes. “It’s sad because it’s become quite normal. That’s the sad part.”
Bernett is the Third Division-I female athlete to commit suicide in less than two months. First was Stanford soccer goalie Katie Meyer on March 1. Then came Wisconsin runner Sarah Shulze on April 13. Then, Bernett.
Will she be the last?
We hope so, but sadly, evidence suggests she probably won’t be. Data about campus suicides is difficult to come by. However, the Jed Foundation, a national nonprofit working to prevent suicides and improve emotional health of young people, indicates the challenges of mental health have grown steadily among college students during the past five years.
College athletes aren’t immune.
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Frankly, their mental health challenges can be exacerbated because they are athletes.
“I think these student-athletes are pushed and pressed,” Gasso said, “and they have a lot of plates that are spinning and are trying to balance everything.”
That was something Gasso knew prior to the events of recent weeks, but in the aftermath of Bernett’s suicide, she asked OU psychologist Dolores Christensen to meet with the team. She led the Sooners in an activity where they split into small groups and shared how they were feeling.
Then, Christensen asked if any of the players wanted to share with everyone.
One particular sentiment hit Gasso hard.
“Sometimes, I feel like I can’t breathe.”
That made Gasso think about the daily routine of her players. Wake up. Work out. Eat breakfast. Perhaps. Go to class. Eat lunch. Perhaps. Go to practice. Look at video. Get on the field. Practice for three hours. Go to a night class or work on homework.
“And it’s just over and over and over and over again,” Gasso said. “As much as they’re trying to do all the right things, as coaches, we think we are, too, by, ‘This is how you win.’”
But as she listened to her players talk during Christensen’s session with them, Gasso had a realization.
“This isn’t how you win,” she thought. “We’ve got to find better ways to do things.”
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Last weekend, Gasso asked the players to write letters to their parents and guardians, expressing what those adults mean to them. But as the Sooners were on their final regular-season road trip, Gasso also wanted there to be some fun for the seniors and super seniors.
“They’re playing games, and they’re laughing, and they’re laughing so loud security’s coming up to the room,” Gasso said.
“It was fun to watch them have fun, not related to softball. They have fun winning — they love to win — but it was fun to see them having fun in another space. … It just filled my heart, and I know that I have to do more things to make this more humanized than robotic.”
Gajewski strives for that, too. The Cowgirls coach has a 24-7 open-door policy.
“My phone’s never off,” he said.
But he doesn’t wait for players to reach out to him. Gajewski is proactive in interacting and communicating with players. Connecting with his players is one of the things he loves most about coaching, so he is always picking at them, as he calls it.
“I think they get frustrated early,” he said. “When I pick at you about your love life or your family or school or whatever it is, that’s not me trying to be in your business more than you want me. I want to know, when things don’t look right, what does that look like?”
Like Gasso, Gajewski asked one of the athletic department’s psychologists to speak to his team recently. Trevor Richardson met with the Cowgirls earlier this week after they returned from a road trip at Florida State.
“We’re not alone,” OSU outfielder Chyenne Factor said. “Reach out just to anybody.”
Self-care is crucial, too.
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Factor finds time to simply sit on her couch and decompress for a while every day during the season. OR second baseman Tiare Jennings goes for long drives with her windows down and her music up.
“I think it’s just finding joy in the small, little things,” OSU ace Kelly Maxwell said. “We don’t have much time throughout the day … but we can celebrate the joyful things and the small things.”
Lots of times, that has nothing to do with softball.
Finding a good parking spot on campus.
Seeing your roommate has washed the dishes.
But sometimes players get to the point where even that doesn’t move the needle. Their mental health is poor, and their outlook is bleak. They need professional help. They require an intervention.
That might be something a coach can’t provide, but a coach can intervene if they know how.
That’s why Gasso wanted to do that webinar Wednesday evening. Yes, this was a big week for her and her Sooners. Sure, she could’ve left such matters to some other coach or some other time.
But she felt called to act.
“It is extremely heartbreaking and alarming to see what’s going on throughout the country,” she said. “It’s just screaming for help.”
Gasso hopes she is doing everything she can to respond.
We have to hope everyone in athletics is.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok, and support her work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.
If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, call the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline any time day or night at (800) 273-TALK (8255). Other resources include:
► The Crisis Text Line provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day. Text HOME to 741741.
► The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides information and resources. Call (800) 950-NAMI (6264), 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, or email email@example.com.