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Accomplished XC Runner Speaks out on Vital Issues Related to Mental Health Within College Athletics

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

My name is Emma Clark. I was born and raised in the Bay Area of California. Growing up I was a soccer player until I decided to join my high school’s cross country team as a freshman to “get in shape” for high school soccer tryouts in the Winter. After making varsity as a freshman and falling head over heels with the steep learning curve of a new sport, I quit soccer for good and became a runner. The program I was a part of in HS was highly competitive and considered one of the best public school programs in the Central Coast Section (CCS). My head coach ran for UCLA in college and became a part of the coaching staff there once he completed his Masters degree. He wrote a thesis on the psychology of running and this heavily dictated his coaching ideologies. Through the influence of both my coach and former alumni mentors, I was strongly encouraged to think about running in college from the time I was a freshman. I did my research, talked to alumni about their collegiate experiences and began making decisions about what I wanted out of a college program. I had no preference in division and rather honed in on features such as team culture, training ideologies, coaching staff, amenities/facilities, injury rates, etc. I was extremely logistically focused. I was drawn to schools with smaller student populations and looked at a lot of private universities with Christian affiliations.

I came across Lee University, a division II university, just before they began to establish a powerhouse title for their program. What stood out about this program specifically was the coaching staff. The head coach, Coach Morgan, is easily the best coach I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. His coaching style revolves around future outlook and growth while being strongly data driven. I took my training very seriously as I transitioned from HS to college. I went as far as moving to school seven weeks early to begin adapting to the southern humidity, training with other teammates and enrolling in a summer course.

My freshman year development was cut short early in the Fall due to an accessory bone in my ankle and the surgical removal of it. The recovery process was long and I didn’t feel like I fully regained fitness until the middle of summer training of the next year (freshman → sophomore). Sophomore year was the most crucial year of development for me as an athlete. This was the year that the toxicity truly began to sink in and become noticeable to me. I lived in a team house with other teammates, I consistently earned a spot on travel, I shaved minutes off my PRs and began setting goals that seemed daunting at the time… yet possible ie): All American. I ate, breathed and slept running to the point where it was the entirety of my identity.

On the outside, to my friends, family and even teammates, life was pretty sweet. Yet it was so far from it. The team house became an extension of team drama/tensions that I felt like I could never escape. House tensions even made their way to practice and especially races. It was a never ending cycle. I’m not here to bash teammates for living together, because for some it really does work out great. But I was not so lucky. I slowly adopted the toxic mentalities of my housemates/teammates and began treating food in a way I never had before. I lost twenty pounds in one semester. I was freaking fast, but not in a sustainable way. I would barely make it to the end of a season and just revel in my two week break, hoping it would never end while simultaneously feeling SO guilty for not running 60+ miles weekly.

There was little culture around addressing toxic mentalities at the time I was a part of this program. There was a prominent focus on winning streaks, titles and records. Don’t get me wrong, it was really exciting to contribute to the program at this time and feel like I was making an impact felt by both my teammates and coaches, yet there was constantly a looming pressure of upholding winning streaks, breaking records and always thinking bigger/faster. The stress and pressure to perform was constantly at a high. As someone that can perform well under stress and pressure, this wasn’t something that bothered me as much in the moment as it does now looking back on it. At the end of the fall cross country season my sophomore year I had achieved the goals I had set for myself that season: All-conference, all-region, compete at nationals which was hosted in my home state. However, I went home for Winter break feeling empty. When I was injured my freshman Fall I thought I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t healthy. When I became healthy in the Spring I thought I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t fit. And there I was at the end of Sophomore year cross country season, the fittest I had ever been, countless titles to my name, medals around my neck and a part of program history, yet so unbelievably

unhappy. I missed home. I realized I had fallen completely out of love with running. I did nothing for “fun.” I didn't have any hobbies. I didn’t eat food I truly enjoyed anymore. I was living for the next run, the next race, the next title and willing to fight tooth, bone and nail to get it. I called my mentor and friend from high school who was a few years older than me. “I’m gonna do it. I’m gonna transfer.” I told her over the phone. She walked me through the entire process. She helped me with the formal paperwork; how to talk to my coaches, my friends, my teammates; what I needed to do during the recruiting process, etc. I was terrified and had no idea where I was going to go or who I would run for, but what I did know was I wanted to fall back in love with running in California.

My new preferences for my future program were centered around balance. Balance between school, athletics, health, fun, friends/family, etc. Prestige was important but not in the same way it was to me initially. I wanted to find a program that valued prestigious academics and athletics. Train hard. Study harder. However, I overcorrected.

A former highschool teammate got in touch with me once he knew I wanted to leave and encouraged me to reach out to his current coach. I was hesitant since the program was in San Diego and I was more inclined to move back to Northern California. “Just one phone call and if you don’t wanna do an official after, I won’t bother you again about it.” He promised. One phone call turned into two, then three and countless more. Eventually, my Tuesday afternoons that Spring became reserved for phone calls with my future coach. I was admired for asking the hard questions, getting straight to the point and knowing what I wanted out of my collegiate experience. I meant business and he understood.

I spent my first and only indoor season chasing PR after PR, knowing each second brought me closer to California and what I truly wanted. I will speak on the distaste and pettiness I received from both my teammates and a portion of the coaching staff during the semester I decided to leave. More often than not, the reactions I received from teammates were very stand-offish. It was as if they took offense to me wanting to leave. There were rarely follow up questions about why I wanted to leave or why I was considering the schools I was. The conversation usually just reached a dead end after I made my desire to leave clear.

I felt isolated and outcast the moment they knew I was leaving. I did have a handful of teammates who I felt truly supported by in my decision. They continued to hang out with me, make time for me and never treated me differently. Some I even still have regular contact with to this day. What I found most interesting was how other transfers reacted to the news. It would go one of two ways:

  1. Curt and cold replies followed by a “best of luck” message and slowly distancing themselves from me afterwards.

  2. Congratulatory support with acknowledgement to the hardship that comes with making the decision and offering advice from their experience. Unfortunately, more often than not I was faced with the first type of reaction. After reflection, I could fathom where that type of bitter response came from and how it was personal to them. Later in my career I noticed that this type of reaction is common among teammates when an individual decides to transfer for any reason. It really rubs me the wrong way how personally a teammate can take a decision that truly has nothing to do with them.

My head Coach at Lee was very understanding of my decision. I definitely sensed that I had caught him a bit off guard, but nonetheless he continued to support me, coach me with the same enthusiasm and even advocate on my behalf for scholarship at my future program. However, not all athletic staff carried the same support and acceptance as him. I remember one conversation in particular with a member of the athletic staff.

“U of San Diego, I’ve heard of them before. I don’t think they have a full track team though.”

“No, they don’t.”

“They don’t win or do extremely well in their conference then.”

“Who said I cared about winning.”

They were left speechless. They had no idea how to win over an athlete with something other than winning and titles. It was at that moment that I felt more justified in my decision to leave than ever before. How can you recruit athletes only on the basis of titles and trophies? You really have nothing more to offer than victory? Reflecting on that conversation gave me insight to the superficialness I had been surrounded by, yet completely oblivious to.

During Spring Break I finally attended my long anticipated official visit. I fell in love with the program. The program’s foundations were built on the idea of balance I desired more than anything else. The team leadership at the time was admirable from academics (girls in STEM) to athletics (well rounded, fast athletes) to leadership styles. The location was perfect, academics were engaging and prestigious, I had access to the stores I liked to shop at, it felt almost too good to be true. COVID hits. I spent what would’ve been outdoor season training alone in Idaho, a place I had yet to ever call home since my family moved there once I moved away for college. It was mentally tough to adapt an entirely different training program, alone, in a completely new place. My new programming was very “laissez faire” or hands off. I had flexibility in my programming that I hadn’t ever had before. I was given autonomy over delegating my weekly mileage, collaborating with coaching staff to make adjustments in pace, mileage, etc. where I saw fit. I slowly began to fall back in love with running during this time. Bit by bit. I found joy in the activity that I had become so numb to. Previously in my career, running was just a vehicle to validation and feeling both accomplished and accepted. I finally had the time and (social) distance to think pensively about my career and why I loved the sport. This was one of the highlights of my career as I reflect on my time in college athletics. So much optimism for the future, so many exciting unknowns ahead and it was just me by myself, training out of the love for the sport and the hope to cultivate a better future for myself within the realm of athletics. In January of 2021 I was able to return to campus and attend team practices with other teammates while continuing class via Zoom. All practices and meetings were unofficial and informal since COVID was still of concern and vaccines didn’t roll out until the end of the semester. There were very few races (I can count on one hand how many times I toed the line) and the entire semester felt like a blur with online school while trying to adjust to so many new aspects of life. I did my best to smoothly integrate into the team and adapt to the new culture I was immersed in. There were definitely struggles considering transfers were rare for this program and that my class itself was made up of two other girls while the entire women’s team was over forty women. I was happy with my new teammates, coaching staff and overall experience. I did struggle adapting to the new training program, but this was something I had prepared myself for and knew would be a consequence of transferring. Within running, programming is key to making us well rounded runners and there are many ideologies that work and work well. However, our bodies need time to adapt to the new training patterns before we see results in racing. Because this was anticipated I was not concerned or disappointed as I transitioned.

My final round of summer training was the most intensive I went through. I was averaging around sixty miles weekly, lifting twice a week, working over forty hours a week in childcare and doing it all alone. I knew this was it for me. I was honed in on the Fall season and finding closure with my career. Things began to fall apart at the return to campus in the late summer. Preseason revealed the seemingly endless flaws in the leadership of the women’s program. Four captains, overseeing forty women with little to no experience in leadership or performing at a high level collegiately. There was a sense of panic, lack of confidence and disinterest that was evident to all their teammates. It was so apparent that I had countless freshmen confide in me for advice, about issues or just questions in general because they expressed their lack of confidence in the adequateness of the formal leadership. Even other teammates that weren’t brand new to the program expressed the same concern to not only me, but the coaching staff.

As the season progressed, the sense of entitlement that a portion of the leadership carried became more evident. It also became more evident that from the top down that this program was losing prestige and trending towards becoming a running club. The attitude and lack of meaningful engagement from the leadership combined with the lack of discipline from the coaching staff fostered an environment for laziness and indifference to thrive.

As a team member who made sacrifices and fought hard to be a contributing member of the program I was extremely frustrated. It was embarrassing to watch teammates drop workouts just because their running buddy did and half-ass cross training while reaping “the benefits” of being a college athlete. It was even harder to attempt meaningful conversations with the coaching staff about cultivating change only to have my concerns brushed off. “Everything will work itself out, don’t worry about it. Time is on our side.” As an extremely proactive individual, I was more than dissatisfied with this response. I felt the prestige of the program deteriorating further daily as this continued and did my best to simply put my head down to focus. “This is my last cross season, I’m not going to let this impact me any more than it already has.”

It wasn’t until the Spring semester that mental health took center stage and forever impacted my collegiate experience. Feeling defeated after my attempts to create change within a deeply flawed program and uneasy about what the future after college held, created a perfect storm for anxiety and depression to thrive. I began taking less interest in practice, racing, team endeavors, etc. I became more introverted and began isolating myself more and more.

I began waking up before practices in a state of utmost panic and carrying that anxiety all the way through practice. Then the anxiety began festering the night prior to practice and impacting my sleep as well. This was clearly unsustainable and impacted my training as well. Depression showed up as sleeping 13+ hours regularly, having no motivation to go to class or practice, spiraling thoughts, skipping classes regularly and deep isolation from friends, family and my boyfriend who is also a former college athlete (men’s lightweight rowing).

I was absolutely miserable and living my worst nightmare. As soon as my symptoms of anxiety and depression began to show I started seeing a therapist through my university. He was also a runner in college and I felt like I could speak openly about the struggles that were frustrating me. However I ended up needing more support than this.

About halfway through the semester I reached a point where I couldn’t even get out of bed to go to practice. I missed two days of practice and communicated with my head coach about the situation after I missed the first day. On the first day I received an extremely passive aggressive text message from a member of the leadership team reprimanding me for not showing up to practice, not sending a message to the team and making assumptions about why I was not in attendance. In response I made it clear it was a private matter I communicated to the head coach about and that he has my permission to speak to the leadership team about. I received a second message like that from another leader on the second day and followed up with a similar response.

I was upset that there was clearly no communication between the coaching staff and leadership team. It was even more frustrating that leadership saw fit to reach out on an administrative note rather than check on me or create a conversation about what was happening. There was no room for me to share what was going on or how they could best support me through this.

Once it became difficult to attend practice and the amount of classes I had missed began to stack up, I decided to expand the care I was receiving. I began working with a psychiatrist and therapist who teamed up to deliver the best possible care for me. For the first time I started taking medication to help relieve the symptoms I was experiencing. I was really nervous to take medication and especially for the potential side effects I could experience, yet I was desperate to see results.

During Spring break after I had missed the two practices, I had a member of the athletic training team reach out to me to discuss the mental health challenges I was experiencing. I was honest and explained I was experiencing both anxiety and depression and that I was receiving therapy through the university and from my own providers. I even went as far as detailing some of my symptoms. I was asked to follow up with them upon returning from vacation, but was confused as to what further information was needed from me.

I returned from Spring break with a boost in energy and a renewed sense of purpose to train. However, when I showed up to practice at 6:00am my head coach was shocked to see me and quickly pulled me into his office. It was explained to me that I was uncleared to participate by the athletic trainers and that I could not participate. I was dumbfounded. “Why? I was never informed of this decision” I asked.

“You did not follow up with athletic training and we need to make sure you’re okay before you participate.”

“I explained to them in writing what was going on, my symptoms and my care I’m receiving - what else do they need?” I was fuming. No one had informed me I was uncleared until I was at practice. What I was even more upset about though was the double standard that smacked me clear across the face.

There were at the time countless girls on the team with evident disordered relationships with food and exercise yet they were permitted to continue training. Overtraining and undereating ran rampant through the team and no one was doing anything to address it. The coach denied it was even an issue. I was cleared about a week later but had lost an entire week of training. I felt bitter and wanted nothing more than to be done with college sports. In a conversation with my head coach later in the season I experienced a moment that will forever stick with me. I was told,

“We cannot afford a situation like what happened at Stanford here at USD.” The “situation” at Stanford that was referenced was the tragic loss of Katie Meyer. I was fuming, raging and more angry than I had ever been. Was this really all about trying to cover the athletic department’s behind and keep the school’s name out of the papers? How could you say that to your athlete? We’re athletes, but we’re human first. I was dumbfounded and still am to this day.

What needs to be done? Well, a lot but a great place to start would be breaking stigmas about mental health in athletes and providing mandatory, adequate training to all professionals who oversee college athletes. This includes coaches, athletic department staff, athletic trainers, etc. Simply anyone an athlete will encounter who is in an administrative position of authority. This training should be developed AND delivered by mental health professionals. We as athletes need to be open to hearing the stories of our peers and fostering an environment where it feels safe to be vulnerable. We cannot continue to uphold the toxic narrative that those who don’t “succeed” in college athletics aren’t “cut out” for it. Every program has different challenges/flaws and every athlete comes from a different background with different struggles. Be proactive and call out what doesn’t seem right to you. Talk to your coaches, athletic training staff, athletic directors, etc. Be vocal about the changes you want to see at your university.

I share all of this in hope that it will spark inspiration, create awareness and contribute to cultivating growth in college athletic programs across the country. This is my story, what’s yours?

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