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Mental Health

Ricky Williams is advocating for mental health in ‘Soul Training’

In the YouTube series, athletes discuss the importance of mental wellness

Soul Training, a new four-part series from UNINTERRUPTED, seeks to change lives on and off the field by opening up a dialogue about mental health.

The show, which is available on YouTube, started off as a one episode special last year for World Mental Health Day. Dr. Armando “Mondo” Gonzalez, a therapist, interviewed former NFL star Ricky Williams about strategies for mental wellness and healing the mind and the soul.

The episode was so well-received, the two were asked to do it again, this time as co-hosts inviting other athletes to share their experiences as they worked to overcome mental health and general life struggles.

Soul Training just wrapped its run, which featured guests former Super Bowl champion Ryan Mundy, the founder and CEO of Alkeme Health; six-time All-American gymnast Katelyn Ohashi; World Cup champion ski racer Lindsey Vonn; and Olympic medalist and current Santa Clarita Blue Heat soccer player, Lauren Sessleman.

Gonzales, Williams, and Mundy recently sat down with Andscape to talk about the show and the impact they hope it will have on people who may have previously been afraid to discuss the struggles with their mental health. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The series focuses on athletes and their mental health, but the lessons learned can be applied to everyone. Why did you choose to focus on athletes exclusively?

Gonzalez: The thing for all of us is this idea that we are empowering athletes to feel. Like, I know you feel like you’ve never done this before, but you have all the tools that you’ve demonstrated in the thing you feel really confident in. The way that you go toward the difficulty, the way you approach the challenges, the way that you look at the schedule and still show up for practice on the days you don’t want to — actually you possess all the skills that most people don’t because they don’t have that training. If you apply it to your “Soul Training,” that same mentality, that same mindset, then whatever it is you are afraid of tackling can be conquered. 

Athletes have that tremendous ability, and I think that’s what we can borrow from them. The courage that they use to show up and take a beating from a linebacker — in that same way, we’re having to display courage in our lives. It’s all relative in our lives to show up to a job that we don’t love, or to be in relationships that take work. These are things I think we can borrow from athletes. 

Williams: To me it’s that we (athletes) have what it takes and what a lot of people need. I feel like as athletes, part of what we are here to do is inspire people. We’re limited in what we can inspire people to do externally, but what we can inspire people to do internally is infinite. When we were talking to Lindsey [Vonn] and she was talking about conquering the mountain, I was like, “Wow. It feels like marriage.” And the reality is if you take that attitude, it becomes a mountain that we can conquer. 

One of the things I love about Nick Saban is he is more like a shaman than a coach. He’s always talking about the process. No matter how difficult things get, he keeps talking about the process. He says you have to stay focused on the process, and he is one of the most successful football coaches ever, and I believe that’s why. When you stay focused on the process, you make strides.

How is working with athletes on mental health different from working with other people?

Gonzalez: There’s a lot more walls and doors and rooms and padlocks to get through. In my former practice, people came to me out of desperation. They needed help. I think with athletes, even in their desperation, they aren’t turning to therapists. They’re turning to many other ways to self-soothe or self-regulate that will then be used against them to create a narrative. 

I think the difference for me is that at their core there are basic human needs for everyone. It’s all the same, but for athletes it is about a point of access. It’s harder to get access with athletes, and that’s why we need this. We need Soul Training. We have to show more modeling of this. 

Williams: I think what we are doing is really applying the athlete’s mindset to it. This is what was obvious to me as an athlete. There are certain rules of engagement. There are things you can get away with on a football team in a locker room that if you go out into the world, you can’t. In football, if someone pisses you off, you’re allowed to say, “Hey, that didn’t feel good.” You’re allowed to have these kinds of confrontational experiences because it’s a safe space, and we are all on the same team, and we care about each other. The deeper message, especially in a team sport like football, is we’re all here to do something extremely difficult together. On a daily basis, it’s the coach’s job to put us in situations where we struggle. That’s the coach’s job because he knows that’s how you develop greater ability. 

When we look at mental health, we make “struggles” a negative thing. We don’t see it the same way, but all of us can attest to the fact that getting through our greatest struggles helped us develop abilities to be able to handle more. 

In order to be effective, you have to be able to handle stuff. You have to be able to handle people you don’t like. These are difficult internal struggles, and if you face them like an athlete faces challenges, then you develop ability. 

I think this is about having a paradigm shift. I think we have to change the way we look at things. 

Everything athletes do is about greater ability and greater performance, but somehow when we look at regular life, we don’t embrace the idea that the point of being alive is to get better, and the only way to get better is through struggles.

Mundy: I think for me, I just realized that I think we are all in a collective spot where we can look around in our environment and our community and our world and say that collectively, we’ve been through a lot. So for us to continue to walk around like things are OK when it feels like every day the house is crumbling down — whether it’s financial markets or COVID or whatever it is — I think we’ve gotten to a sense of humanity and empathy both externally and internally where it’s like, “Man, I just want to be light, and I just want to level and connect with people and not have to mask if I’m not OK.”

I don’t want to have to say that I’m good when I’m not good. When you get around people that you can level with that have that same perspective or paradigm and understand the importance of being well and not always having to fight that battle within, great conversations are the byproduct of that.

Does seeing athletes like Ryan and Ricky discuss their mental struggles make other people feel comfortable about discussing theirs? 

Mundy: When you have a platform or you have achieved your “life’s goal” or you’ve made money or you’ve been famous and you’ve had degrees of success and you can still be vulnerable and have these kinds of conversations, ultimately that’s where the power lies. 

The message that I try to deliver is that even with all those things — fame, money, etc — they don’t give you peace and fulfillment. They are a part of your life situation, and they’re really important, but they’re not you. Just as quickly as you get money, you can lose money. The reality is that you still have to be with yourself, so you are not your things, and you are not your situation. 

It’s really hard for people to grasp that, particularly with folks who have perceived success on the outside. It’s a hard conversation to step up to the plate and say, “You know, even with everything that I’ve accomplished, or been a part of, I’m still dealing with this” or “I’m still dealing with stress” or anxiety, etc. 

Again, perceived success on the outside does not bring peace or fulfillment on the inside. When you’ve achieved that, it’s hard to have that conversation with folks who are living in “less than” conditions. 

So it’s important to acknowledge that while those achievements are important, they are not the end all be all as it relates to your peace or fulfillment. 

Gonzalez: This is a very complicated issue, but at the end of the day, if we start with this idea that we have basic human needs and we keep those in mind when we are talking about these things, it becomes really simple. So much of the way we’ve approached mental health has not had a communal lens because we are an individualistic western society that doesn’t think in terms of systems and families. So I think looking at the communal need is often one that we don’t talk about. 

We all have a need to express ourselves in an individualistic society. We all need to explore ourselves in an individualistic society. The thing that doesn’t get reinforced much is that it’s essential to our inner being and essential to our mental health to have connection to one another. We are currently living in the most socially isolated, lonely time, so there’s such a huge need for belonging and acceptance that can’t be found within. And because it can’t be found within, that means we need someone.

Ultimately, what’s your goal with Soul Training?

Gonzalez: Working with athletes fit a bigger overall North Star I have for myself to not be “the one” but to be part of the team and the movement of people that reimagines mental health and creates a kind of 2.0, which is more inclusive, provides access for all, as well as a higher level and standard of care. 

Working with my first athlete client, Dansby Swanson, I found out what it was like to have an athlete mentality approach this process. I learned I could do six-hour sessions, and I could do intensive sessions, and I was able to change everything about the way I was doing this work traditionally, and that is what got me excited about working with more athletes. 

The other thing is, strategically — and I told them this going in — I wanted them to be advocates for the work and use their platforms to get more access for others. I knew that as athletes, if they had a good experience, they would be more willing to advocate for others to get a similar experience. 

Mundy: With Alkeme, we are on a mission to create “generational health” by building the leading Black mental wellness company designed for the culture. I’m excited about being a part of conversations like Soul Training and others to really just continue to not only destigmatize and have the conversations, but start to provide inspiration and insight on how to take the next step.

We can talk, and we can have conversations, but what’s ultimately important is really taking action. 

We always talk about getting the bag in our community, and that’s super important, but it’s not more important than our health because even when you have the things I’ve talked about — money, success, and fame — if you’re not healthy emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally, you’ll spend all your money on getting right, or you’ll lose your money because you’re not healthy. 

Williams: This has become a purpose for me. My purpose is to encourage people to approach any kind of internal or mental health struggle the same way they see athletes approaching their game, their sport, and their opponents. 

Once I was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, I became like a linebacker. I had to figure out how to overcome this challenge, and I did, and it opened up so many more avenues and doors of meaning and purpose in my life. 

My hope is that everyone has a similar experience. 

When I joined the NFL, I didn’t really have a platform because I spent all my time and energy on becoming a really good football player and ignoring everything else, including my mental health. Being a football player, you aren’t in an environment where people pay much attention to mental health. The attitude is that you deal with your stuff on your own and don’t bring it to work. I consider myself to be a very sensitive person, but being “myself” in the NFL didn’t work. 

I went through a mental health crisis during that time. I was unhappy. I searched to find the root and the cause of my unhappiness, and I went to get help. I found a therapist and started to educate myself on general psychological concepts and ideas, and I started to understand myself, and my life started to get better. 

Mental health is an issue that has not always been talked about in Black and brown communities. How do you reach those communities specifically?

Gonzalez: In Black and brown communities, there’s a very good reason not to trust mental health practitioners and professionals in the same way that there’s a good reason not to trust the system, so I think we have to start there and acknowledge that most systems have not been for Black and brown people. So if the help is being offered by the same hand that just bit you, you would be foolish to give them your hand and trust them to heal the wound they created. 

You want someone who can journey with you into your inner world and be trustworthy enough not to weaponize it against you or use it against you. You want someone who is cultured enough to understand your experience to never project their ideas of the world onto you and allow you to have your own ideas that are rooted in your culture and who you are and the communities you grew up in. 

Being vulnerable is a luxury. I’m reminded when I go into environments where survival is life and death on a daily basis that vulnerability is not necessarily a thing that’s going to help you survive; it’s actually a thing that might get you hurt or might get you killed. So when it comes to Black and brown communities, they have been put in a position in society where they constantly have to survive, and this luxury of vulnerability isn’t available to them. 

Monique Judge is a storyteller, content creator and writer living in Los Angeles. She is a word nerd who is a fan of the Oxford comma, spends way too much time on Twitter, and has more graphic t-shirts than you. Follow her on Twitter @thejournalista or check her out at http://moniquejudge.com