Ebony Nwanebu started playing volleyball at age 5 when she and her mother (a volleyball veteran) went to Bring Your Own Parent clinics in her hometown of Fairview, Texas. By the age of 12, she was playing club with Texas Advantage Volleyball in Dallas under the direction of legendary coach Ruth Nelson. Three years later, she committed to play at the University of Southern California.
She graduated from high school, left her hometown and supportive family, and headed to the big city to begin her bright future. In 2013 she had a spectacular freshman season, earning AVCA National Freshman of the Year, AVCA First Team All-American, AVCA Pacific South Region Freshman of the Year, AVCA Pacific South All-Region Team, Volleyball magazine Freshman of the Year, Volleyball magazine Second Team All-American, Pac-12 All-Conference, and Pac-12 Freshman of the Year honors, just to name a few.
With those accolades and some new expectations in tow, Nwanebu began looking ahead to the 2014 season, her sophomore year on a team that was expected to be one of the best in the country. However, a nagging back injury would set in motion a serious of physical and emotional changes.
As an athlete, says Nwanebu, you are expected to push yourself. So at first she tried to muscle through the pain of her back injury.
I would stretch more, get massages, she said. It started off as nothing. I pushed it aside until I couldnt anymore. We found out there was a bigger problem.
The bigger problem was a fractured L5 disc in her lower spine and a stress reaction on the left side, an overuse injury. It kept her off the court and in a back brace for three months after her freshman campaign. She rehabbed during the offseason and began playing again in preseason, but her performance was not the same.
It was frustrating. I felt like I was letting people down, she said. That messed with me and brought me down a lot. I kind of lost my identity because I wasnt able to perform how I wanted.
This kind of reaction is not uncommon for young athletes struggling with injury, or other anxiety-causing developments. People in their late teens and early 20s are in the midst of crucial years in identity formation, explained Dr. Jennifer Paweleck-Bellingrodt, a clinical psychologist. If something presents itself and fits the bill, then they will take on that identity. When that identity is taken [away], you feel like a failure.
Midway through her sophomore season, Nwanebu’s frustrations in volleyball grew and she began developing anxiety and depression. Away from home and her supportive family, she struggled with her identity and questioned her priorities.
She confided in her trainer, Abigail Wonnell, but it was clear Nwanebu needed something beyond the scope of a supportive friend and trainer. She started seeing a counselor in the middle of her sophomore season to deal with feelings of confusion, doubt, guilt, and disappointment. Then on the advice of her counselor, she created an online journal where she could vent and keep her thoughts in one place.
On May 4, 19-year-old Nwanebu posted A Jumbled Explanation on her blog to answer a few questions for friends and family and to process her thoughts. She never expected anyone to read it.
Over the course of several weeks, the blog entry was shared, posted, and reposted, eventually reaching a national audience. Athletes, parents, and coaches left comments commending Nwanebu for her courage and candid thoughts on what she referred to as the invisible battle that lead to her decision to leave the USC volleyball program at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.
But it wasnt necessarily the decision to leave the program that caused her post to go viral; it was identifying an emotional issue, getting the help she needed, and sharing that personal journey.
Ive been doing what people wanted me to do my whole life, said Nwanebu. People wanted me to stay [at USC]. I took a stand and said no[then] I felt 10 years older.
Nwanebu has what all successful athletes have: coachability and adaptability. Athletes get good at their sport because they are good at being coached and taking direction. Coachable players are good for the team, the coach, the fans, and the athletic association. But when play is disrupted due to injury or the end of a season, outside input is reduced, giving the athlete’s own voice a chance to emerge.
College athletics is full of eye-catching headlines and highlight reels of talented young players who seemingly have it alla full ride to a nationally-recognized university, the opportunity to travel domestically and internationally, and perhaps eventually, the chance for a professional career. Rarely is an athlete featured for struggling with and getting help for anxiety or depression. Nwanebu’s openness is not typical or common, which is what makes what she did so remarkable.
Many athletes, like Nwanebu, are conditioned to push through emotional pain in the same manner they push through physical pain, oftentimes not realizing there is a problem until it begins to affect their lives beyond sports or academics, impacting their relationships or finances, or even getting them in trouble with the law.
Ann Kearns Davoren and Seunghyun Hwang wrote a report featured in the 2014 edition of the NCAA handbook on mental health Mind, Body and Sport. Their report, titled Depression and Anxiety Prevalence in Student-Athletes found that college student-athletes do struggle with depression and anxiety, and they are less likely to seek help or report any issues than non-athletes.
Some institutions have recognized this problem and have hired licensed clinical psychologists to work with student-athletes on issues including relaxation and mental preparation for competition as well as clinical depression and eating disorders. But these resources can only work if athletes seek them out.
There can be a dissonance created in the mind of an athlete who is perceived to be one thing (i.e. having it all, mentally and physically tough, good at performing under pressure) and in reality is struggling to keep grades up, make friends, manage relationships, and deal with time away from family. This contrast is real and stressful and often under-reported. It’s what Nwanebu refers to in her post as my broken mind.
Athletes have a perception of having great lives. To admit emotional difficulty is to admit vulnerability, or holes in my game, said Albert Ledet, a clinical psychologist and consultant for Hi-Intensity Sports Concepts in Phoenix, Arizona.
Coaches and athletic support staff can help teach athletes to be conscious of their mental health by emphasizing that training their minds and processing their emotions is just as important as training their muscles and utilizing recovery time.
Resiliency and Restarting
Nwanebu is in a better place these days. She is still in contact with her therapist from California and is looking for another one locally to continue the work she started last year. It’s a new chapter with a new voice, but the jumbled explanation she penned in May started life changes she may not fully comprehend for some time.
At the center of it all, Nwanebu found that she’s still a small town girl with a penchant for all things Disney, the color pink, and, of course, volleyball. Admitting she needed help allowed her to tap into a source of resiliency that propelled her through a tough life transition.
Nwanebu is excited to be back on the court and to begin her junior season in her home state at the University of Texas at Austin. She plans to major in youth and community studies and work with young athletes and other kids and help them find their unique voices. Already, she has accumulated some wisdom that she wants to share with other struggling young athletes: Find someone that you trust, go see a counselor. I wish I had done that earlier. Keep your head up, go be you, and do what you want to do. Dont let anyone dictate your life to you.