JOHNS CREEK, Ga. | Anyone who thinks high-level athletes are immune to mental health issues hasn’t been paying attention. And not just recently with the high-profile examples like Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps admitting their struggles. If anything, feelings of depression, self-loathing and despair hit athletes harder than most.
“Oh, yes, for some, it’s a lot worse than the general population, because so many of them have their identities wrapped up in their sport,” said sports psychologist Dr. Bob Jones IV, who also happens to be a member at Atlanta Athletic Club and is the grandson of golf icon Bobby Jones. “Most people have other people and things (in their lives). You have spouses, partners, children, jobs, friends, all different kinds of things that balance out your life. But athletes who get to the top level, where they are among the best of the best in the world at their sport, they have had to focus so intently on what they do, when you take that away from them, you take away how they have defined themselves since they were very young.”
If you have friends who are athletes or former athletes, you know this is true. Talk to them about their most vulnerable moments (and you have to be good friends for them to go there), and you realize that when the spotlight goes out, life can get awfully dark.
Lizette Salas isn’t at that point by any means. But Salas, who shot a 5-under 67 on Thursday on Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highland Course to take an early lead in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, opened up about some of the struggles she has faced and some of the steps she’s taking to get better.
“I'm not afraid to be out here anymore,” Salas said. “It's fun.”
When asked when she was most afraid, she said, “Probably all of 2020. That was a really tough year for me. It was probably one of the lowest points of my career, mentally. But I am so lucky to have a strong backbone and team to be there for me.
“I really didn't like myself in 2020, and I think with the whole COVID thing and not being able to work and have golf as my outlet, that really hit hard. As much as I love my family and loved being around them, it was tough. I homeschooled my (second grade) nephew for about two months and I said, ‘No more, please.’ But I understand that everyone had to go through something. It was hard for me to even speak about it because I felt like other people were going through the same thing. Why did I need to feel sorry for myself? Over time, it accumulated and got worse. And when I finally got out here, it was so bad that the golf couldn't help.”
The golf wasn’t great early in the year. Salas missed three cuts in her first four starts, including the ANA Inspiration. A T59 at the HUGEL-AIR PREMIA LA Open was especially difficult in her hometown and so close to the University of Southern California where Salas was a superstar.
“You know, it takes time,” she said. “I had to take care of my mental health. That's something that a lot of people don't really take into consideration. I think for me coming from a Hispanic background, it's very hard to talk about that. But I'm very fortunate to have a team that was willing to bend over backwards to help me and to get me to where I am right now.”
Where is she now?
“I feel great,” she said with a natural smile and a look in her eyes that let everyone know that this was a cathartic session more than a press conference. “I feel more like myself. I'm not really intimidated by anything anymore. I'm enjoying the process. I'm better at communicating how I'm feeling, which is very hard. Even as a 31-year-old veteran out here, it's hard for me to communicate what I'm feeling. Sometimes my team has to get it out of me. And I'm just allowing myself to be in that vulnerable place and ask for help.”
Asking for help is always the first step, one far too few athletes take. It’s one of the reasons divorce rates, financial problems, alcohol and drug abuse among active and retired athletes far exceeds the general population. These are cries for help from people who don’t realize that they need it.
“I wasn't able to play for a long time,” Salas said. “And then when I saw that I wasn't getting the results I wanted, it ate me up. It was really bad. But I wouldn't ask for help. I was very stubborn. Instead of asking, I pretty much shut people out.
“That was not the right way to do it. I acknowledge that. I'm a different person now. I hope I can just continue this positive process.”
She is expanding her horizons, reading books and being more open. “I started reading this book called ‘I'm Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,’” Salas said. “I started reading that and I thought it was a biography of myself. Then there's this Frida Kahlo book that talks about how her thinking can (translate) into modern-day issues like loving yourself and self-confidence.
“And when you look back at (Frida’s) history, she did things her way and enjoyed her own process. So, I've just been highlighting a few things here and there. And it puts me to sleep. So, it's a win-win.”
Dr. Jones said, “A lot of people think that what I do as a sports psychologist is help people do their sport better. But a big part of my job is managing transitions – going from one part of your life to another and being able to accept that and, ultimately, embrace it.”
“I wanted to talk about this in the beginning of the year,” Salas said of her mental-health struggles. “But I wasn't ready. I wanted to share this, my story and my process, when I was confident. I guess now is the time to talk about it. And I'm not going to lie. I'm a little nervous even talking about it now.
“But that’s okay. I'm in a much better place. Just happy to be here.”