GAINESVILLE — Florida’s Dan Mullen begins every coaches meeting with a question that’s asked more and more these days.
Before he and his assistants break down film, plan practice or discuss Xs and Os, Mullen first finds out how players are doing away from the field and the classroom — where performance can be harder to gauge.
The answer can be complicated and not always easy for athletes to express. Lately, though, many more are speaking openly about the mental challenge of competing at the highest levels.
This summer, tennis star Naomi Osaka and gymnastics legend Simone Biles declined to compete during the showcase events in their sport, citing mental health concerns.
Mullen wants to avoid internal stress and outside pressure of playing big-time college football reaching a crisis point with any of his players.
“If I don’t know a problem exists, it’s really hard for me to fix,” Mullen said. “So, we just have a constant, open communication.”
One way Mullen keeps tabs on his players is through conversations with their position coaches or staffers within the program.
“We start every staff meeting with player issues,” Mullen said. “What have you noticed? Does anybody even have a faraway look in their eye? Is anybody sad about something in the training room? And everybody in the program, is there something that we’re missing or that people aren’t talking about that we can help our guys out with?”
Mullen, though, does not merely rely only on the insights and observations of other people.
UF’s head coach strives to create a family atmosphere within his program, a concept some coaches pay lip service to but one that is a source of pride for the 49-year-old entering his 13th season as a head coach.
“Obviously, we’re involved in their lives,” Mullen said. “You’re very much a family, so you’re very connected that way.”
Gators find ways to cope with stress, criticism and other mental health challenges
Yet, the Gators spend a lot of time on their own and are left to their own devices, both literally and figuratively these days. The explosion of social media and ever-ready access to it on one’s smartphone can be an unhealthy combination.
“If you’re living through social media, that’s a bad idea because now you’re letting other people shape your ideas, shape your personality,” veteran defensive line coach David Turner said. “If you listen to that and constantly looking at that stuff, at some point, it will affect you.”
Turner, who has 35 years of coaching experience, said outside criticism or affirmation can be equally toxic. More often than not, it also is ill-informed.
“Everybody has an opinion,” Turner said. “I say it all the time. There’s two things every male in America can do: grill and coach football. You start listening to all these other opinions and sometimes you can get an inflated opinion of yourself. Things can get out of whack.
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“I talk to the guys about it. I’m not a therapist, by any means, but they know they can come to me. If they’ve got problems or things ain’t going good, if I can’t help them, I’ll find somebody who can.”
During the summer of 2019, the SEC put in place initiatives to address mental health. At the time, commissioner Greg Sankey said the issue was perhaps the most pressing in college sports.
Since then, the nation has experienced a worldwide pandemic causing death, illness and isolation impacting countless lives.
Redshirt senior defensive standout Zachary Carter saw a close family friend perish, leading him to sit out the first week of 2020 preseason camp and giving him pause about playing last season.
“When that happened, I was like, man, this is for real,” Carter recalled. “We knew people were dying, but when you actually hear somebody you know is dying, you kind of look at it differently — like that could be me or that could be us.
“That kind of like slowed me down.”
The spread of COVID-19 continues a year later, but Mullen said coaches and players have learned to better cope with the virus, follow safety protocols and, in most cases, have been vaccinated.
However the pandemic ultimately plays out, many of the pressures of being a high-profile athlete are here to stay. In response, teammates aim to lift each other during tough times, with veterans often taking a leading role.
“We all face challenges,” said defensive tackle Daquan Newkirk, a graduate transfer from Auburn who hails from Orlando. “I just tell them to push through. We all love football, so that’s one thing we have in common. I think that’s what keeps us going.”
But linebackers coach Christian Robinson, a former Georgia standout, said a football mentality could camouflage a personal issue.
“We’re big, bad football players and what the world tells us to be,” Robinson said. “But a lot of the emotions that you feel are real and they apply to the game: the joy, the fame, the frustration. All those things come out in the game and they happen in life every day.
“We have a lot of players that have things outside of here that are hard for them and their families, and I try to tell them that if you’re feeling that way, it’s OK.”
A serious injury also can send a player into a shell and left grappling with disappointment, despair and solitude.
Mullen said cornerback Jaydon Hill’s season-ending knee injury during the first week of preseason camp often derails a player who has expended so much time and effort to prepare for the season.
“When you know you’ve worked so hard and that gets taken away from you ... It’s really difficult,” Mullen said. “We’re there with our guys — you’re a family, you understand it — we have a big support system and then checks and balances, to be honest with you. ... we do have our counselor programs set up that guys meet with — there’s some that we kind of we push into the meeting, some that request it, but others are that you know as you pay very close attention.
“I mean, you have to have a great relationship.”
Mullen and his staff push to forge those bonds every chance available.
“The ultimate goal of our program is to help them reach their full potential every day,” Robinson said.
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