Disclaimer: this article features themes of suicide. If you or someone you know struggles with suicide, depression or other mental health, please reach out to KU Counseling and Psychological Services, the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Following the worst first half of his life, a mental fog hung over David McCormack as he went to the locker room.
Premier athletes such as McCormack don’t get days off. When they enter the field, pitch or court, they are not allowed to have personal struggles. Teammates, coaches and fans expect them to perform.
So when KU 6-foot-10 big man McCormack took to the court against Oklahoma State more than a year ago, he had to put his personal issues aside. But he struggled to do so against OSU. His first-half play only got worse after missing three layups in the first 90 seconds. More than a year and 40 games later, McCormack still laments that 1-for-7 first-half performance of his.
When athletes are missing layups and “the easy things,” it can psychologically affect the rest of their game. McCormack’s AAU coach and mentor Rodney Gore said sometimes an athlete never recovers. While watching the game that night, Gore knew McCormack would be OK. Their motto: Never get outworked; find a way to win.
“I’ve seen athletes that can’t handle that and those situations and take a deep spiral downhill,” Gore said. “I’m really proud of him, as a mentor, working through the adversity and exercising his faith and using his circle, his family and myself, to support him through the process.”
McCormack escaped the mental fog in the second half against OSU, finishing with 23 points and 10 rebounds. It’s also a memory that first comes to mind when recounting his greatest adversities.
“Regardless of how I am feeling or what is going on, I still have a job to do ‘cause this is technically my job,” McCormack said. “That was a moment I was proud of myself because even though I had adversity that didn’t have to do with being on the court, I was still able to manage through and put it aside and play with my mind free and my heart free.”
Athletes learn from a young age how to face adversity. At game time, they set aside personal struggles in order to compete. From the stands or the living room couch, it is easy for spectators to criticize an athlete’s flawed performance.
What fans often fail to acknowledge is athletes are not machines. They feel the downward pressure and weight of high expectations on a daily basis. Many can recite media criticisms – in McCormack’s case, “he’s frantic,” “he’s not the right big for KU” – that compound the pressure. But athletes, despite their abilities, carry the same emotional baggage as the rest of us. They mess up. During those times, they need a support system to help them navigate the difficulties.
Troy Weineinger is a former runner at Fort Hays State University, and a second-year doctoral candidate in KU’s health, education and psychology of physical activity program who has extensively studied the effects of environments and criticism of athletes. He said more often than not, athletes obsess over harsh criticisms rather than recount all the positive comments they’ve received.
“Treat people well and it will go a long way in comparison to harsh criticism and negative comments that one might think would be motivating the athlete,” Wineinger said.
Retaining the love of sport
There was a windy downpour in Columbia, Missouri, on the second day of the 2021 Tom Botts Invitational, forcing the track meet indoors. But the sideways rain didn’t distract KU pole vaulter Zach Bradford.
Bradford started his jumps at 5.51 meters — about 18 feet — which he cleared on his second attempt. After he cleared the next two jumps, the crossbar was lifted to 5.81 meters, which is the equivalent of jumping from the second floor of an apartment building.
After missing his first two attempts of 5.81 meters, Bradford grabbed his pole and walked his way to the start of the runway. Bradford signaled to the crowd to begin a slow clap, something he only does on a final attempt. As the claps sped up, Bradford sprinted down the runway, launching himself up and over the crossbar and landed on the mat below.
The jump not only marked a new personal best for Bradford, but gave him the KU indoor school record. It also made him the No. 9 pole vaulter in NCAA indoor history.
Bradford said this same season, while at the top of his game filled with record-breaking performances, was when he began losing his love for the sport. The constant comparison to athletes his same age who were jumping higher than him was discouraging.
“I was trying way too hard to push to somebody and beat somebody,” Bradford said.
Jason Bradford, Zach’s father, could see the love for the sport fading in his son. Jason was a pole vaulter in high school and had coached Zach throughout his high school career. In summer 2021, they pulled back from international competition. Instead, Bradford returned to his hometown, the garage gym his dad built, and his old club track facility to train in Bloomington, Illinois.
“I just needed to focus on myself and think of all the achievements I’ve come to thus far and just go back to the basics is what really got me back to the love of the sport,” Zach said.
With pole vault, athletes put themselves in harm’s way each jump. Jason Bradford said any hesitation results in failure, which grinds an athlete into hating the sport.
As the fall 2021 track practice began, Jason said Zach began sending videos home, showing skills he was working on in practice. Bradford’s summer at home had sparked the passion again.
“When you start seeing that kind of excitement again, you know he’s back into it,” Jason said.
The student-athlete struggle
Criticism is a shadow that follows athletes throughout their careers. It typically hits the hardest when they’re struggling to perform. Being a highly-recruited KU basketball player darkens that shadow. McCormack has felt it first-hand, especially at the beginning of his junior year.
“You play two times a week on big stages and you begin to question how much your heart is in it,” McCormack said. “You feel like you need a mental break.”
Student-athletes dealing with overwhelming schedules and unrelenting stress is not new. The issue again received attention after Stanford women’s soccer player Katie Meyer committed suicide earlier this month. In an interview with USA Today, Gina Meyer, Katie's mom, said they saw no red flags but knew the 2019 national champion goalie “had a lot on her plate.”
Gina said there is a lot of pressure on high-level athletes to balance academics and extremely competitive environments.
“There is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be No. 1,” Gina said in the USA Today story.
Athletes can also be their own toughest critics. There’s a voice in their heads, called a self-critic, that tears down an athlete’s confidence in their abilities. Jason Kraman, KU Athletics mental health clinician, said an athlete’s self-critic is often more severe than non-athletes because of the level of performance-related stress.
To temper the noise made by the self-critic, Kraman often asks athletes a question: “How can you hold your experience as an athlete a little bit lighter, a little bit more gently, while still not losing that drive to be great?”
Kraman said this concept can feel as though it conflicts with the nature of an athlete, but it does the opposite. It guides athletes away from interpreting less than optimal athletic performances as failures.
“If it’s a failure, we just move away from it,” Kraman said. “But if the poor performance is looked at as a learning experience, athletes can gain mental tools from the hardship. This sets them up for success in the future.”
Making this change is a two-way street. Spectators and fans need to remove phrases such as “that person choked” or “they’re overrated” from their vocabulary, Kraman said. Phrases like those tear down athletes and enforce this idea of failure.
Kraman is one of two full-time staff members who tend to the mental-health needs of KU student-athletes. Kraman was hired on the team recently. He serves as a part of KU Athletics’ push to offer student-athletes easily accessible mental-health care.
Kraman said both staff members serve as an “in-house” option for athletes, but they still refer athletes to specialists or “out-of-house” services if needed.
Following their difficulties, McCormack and Bradford again found success after seeking guidance from their support systems.
Bradford won the indoor Big 12 title in pole vault in February. Last weekend, Bradford placed seventh overall at the NCAA indoor nationals. Bradford also holds the Anschutz Pavilion facility record at 5.75 meters, which he set this season.
Bradford is not just successful collegiately. He is ranked 41st in the world and has aspirations of going pro after college. From there, he hopes to make the Olympic team and compete at the Olympic trials leading into the 2024 Games.
McCormack led the Jayhawks in scoring in the Big 12 tournament championship win last weekend. He also led in scoring in the overtime game against the Longhorns on March 5 to secure the shared Big 12 season title. McCormack’s double-double in the Big 12 tournament championship was his 10th this season.
Kansas men’s basketball was also named a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament on Selection Sunday and now is on its way to the Final Four.