A Call to Action: Duluth East families speak out for more mental health awareness in sports
The pressure is on in prep sports. In 1971 just under 4 million United States high schoolers competed in sports, now there’s over 7.6 million prep athletes in the U.S., according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
This has lead to heightened expectations to perform and, for some Northlanders, that’s correlating to declining mental health.
“It’s not normalized in sports, it’s not normalized in all families to have conversations around mental health,” Nicole Harriman, a psychotherapist based in Hermantown.
Those kinds of conversations are growing in schools, but many student-athletes are feeling left in the dark.
“There was little mental health talk in the team,” Sierra Fuller said, a former Duluth East girls basketball player.
“So many kids don’t tell because there’s such a culture of fear in sports, and not all sports, not all coaches, but it’s pretty pervasive in my experience,” Harriman shared.
According to the latest NCAA Student-Athlete Health and Wellness Study, published in just December, 44 percent of female student-athletes, and 17 percent of men, reported struggling with their mental health. Over 23,000 were surveyed.
These problems aren’t isolated to just colleges either. For the Fuller sisters, juniors at Duluth East High School, they’re in the thick of it. This season would have been their fifth year playing school basketball.
“We started our eighth grade year and we really loved it. But then practices started to get really anxious, and you’re working so hard and receiving no encouragement, it was just mentally taxing. You got to a point where it just wasn’t worth it anymore,” Sierra shared.
Her sister Niah added, “the physicality that we were put through for the basketball season, which is already a long season, but then how much you were pushed was not really worth it for our bodies.”
“You’re more valued as a number on the court than an actual human,” Sierra said.
In July, 2019 Duluth East High School hired a new girls basketball coach. Since then, participation numbers have declined. Two seasons ago the program had 33 rostered players, then 28 last year, and 23 this season with zero seniors and 10 middle schoolers.
“We’ve lost already five players didn’t return this year, five players who would have played,” LeVearne Hagen said, a parent of a former Duluth East girls basketball payer.
Two players to depart the girls basketball program were Sierra and Niah Fuller. Both picking up basketball a decade ago, leaving wasn’t an easy decision. However, sighting harsh language, lack of encouragement, and a ‘toughness drill’ recorded in some testimonials, they made the difficult choice to walk away.
Regarding his daughters’ choice to quit Rick said, “I felt for them because they were really balancing their mental health with something that they loved. They had to give that up because of the environment and culture that is there right now.”
“You’re constantly pinned against your teammates, which is good. But you can’t be pushed 100%, 100% of the time,” Sierra said.
“I miss the sport, but I don’t miss how I was treated and how it made me feel,” Niah added.
A few months ago a former Duluth East Girls Basketball board member, LeVearne Hagen, started getting calls and meeting with parents.
“They were discussing current concerns about the younger girls coming up and playing for the high school. And concerns about the coaches and mental health and player safety. Then within four days later, I got a call from a current family asking if we can meet,” Hagen explained.
Hagen then sent an email to past and present parents and players asking them to tell their stories, why they love basketball, and why they chose to play or quit.
“The letters were coming like crazy,” Hagen said. “At first was like kind of not too many, and then we started getting a lot. Just to hear the stories were just incredibly powerful, heart wrenching, crying. It [was] just overwhelming to the point where, to me, enough is enough.”
When asked about what needs to be done, Rick Fuller said, “I think greater awareness. I think things like the Sophie’s Squad, where we can bring awareness during those games to create a positive environment from mental health standpoint for these young girls would be great.”
Sophie’s Squad is a mental health organization founded by former University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) women’s hockey captain Gabbie Hughes. It aims to improve the mental health of athletes from youth to college levels.
Hagen expanded on needs for increased mental health awareness and understanding.
“I’m not saying you have to have all women staff. I want to really understand that they’re [girls] built different than guys, and guys have their own issues as well. But how to coach women and how to, we’re not saying you’re the best, you’re wonderful, but just tell them what they do wrong.”
Hagen, along with girls basketball parents like Fuller, sat down with Duluth East’s Principal Kelly Flohaug and Athletic Director Shawn Roed on December 14th. That’s when testimonials from past and present parents and players were read aloud.
In January, there was an email update stating that the East Admin Team has been in contact with the assistant superintendent as well as the girls basketball head coach. It said the school will monitor the situation and review the coaching contract at the end of the school year, and that feedback opportunities will be provided for parents and student-athletes after the season, which ends in the middle of March.
WDIO reached out to the Duluth East girls basketball coach, Athletic Director Roed and Principal Flohaug for interviews, but received no response. Duluth Public Schools’ Communication Officer Adelle Wellens would later contact WDIO and provide this statement:
“Both Principal Flohaug and Mr. Roed are aware of complaints from parents, continue to address the concerns and have open communication with families. The district feels both administrators are handling the matter appropriately. We are not able to discuss personnel matters any further.”Adelle Wellens, Communication Officer for Duluth Public Schools
Regarding contact with the school, Rick Fuller said, “I know they said that we won’t know what’s happening, so we don’t know where they’re at or where the process is at. So we’re kind of in the dark.”
As times change, so do coaching styles. For psychotherapist Nicole Harriman, it’s important conversations about mental health are happening now.
“I’m glad it’s coming out now and I think when you know better, we do better. We know better now, we know more about mental health. We’re informed about trauma. Adolescence is a really pivotal time in development. Developing a sense of self, self-esteem, relationships to others. Injuries to that can be lifelong for some kids.”
Harriman said working with teenagers she sees a lot of eating disorders, chronic headaches, and players hiding injuries out of fear.
“It’s hard for kids to advocate for themselves, particularly in the sports world, because there’s fear about, if I stand up for myself, I might lose playing time. I’m going to be perceived as going against the coach. I just don’t think it’s a safe environment for kids to speak up when they have concerns.”
For those seeking help, Harriman suggests finding “a trusted adult, find someone you feel safe with and keep telling until someone believes you.”
Hagen added, “there has to be a change. There needs to be a change for the better for these girls, or we’re not going to have a Duluth East girls basketball program.”
The main goal for those involved is to create an environment that prioritizes mental health.
Duluth Public Schools confirmed via email to WDIO that their only comment for this story as of now is their statement provided by Communication Officer Wellens.
To Get Help:
The City of Duluth offers mental health resources HERE.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 988