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Wichita State Athletes’ Journeys Through Mental Health Struggles

Sean Marty
The Sunflower
The Wichita State volleyball team huddles during a match against Houston last month at Koch Arena.

Just like many athletes across the country, Wichita State men’s tennis player Marius Frosa struggled in adjusting to the collegiate level.

Frosa, a native of Romania, has played the last five seasons with the Shockers. Wichita State men’s tennis coach Danny Bryan said Frosa had a difficult transition to WSU as he struggled with a negative mindset during matches on top of adjusting to a new country.

“He would get really down on himself, he’d be really tough on himself," Bryan said. "We definitely went through some tough times with him.

“A couple years ago, he started to see things differently. I think the stuff at the beginning was the pressure he was putting on himself, and he didn’t know how to handle it yet. He was willing to make those changes with his mentality.”

Frosa isn’t the only one who has been open with his struggles. Murkel Dellien, Frosa’s teammate, is also adjusting to a new country and culture. Dellien, from Bolivia, said that a mindset change has paid dividends this season after having to quarantine on top of everything he was dealing with.

“I couldn’t find my game on the court, and I was really struggling mentally,” Dellien said. “After that, I came back stronger to practice and with the right mentality.”

For athletes, their mental health has been especially affected after the COVID-19 pandemic took away sports. Many athletes relied on sports as an escape.

Gretchen Torline has served as the director of Athletic Academic Services for WSU athletics for the past 30 years. Torline said she has seen plenty of mental health issues take place during her time at WSU, especially as athletes attempt to juggle their workload.
“I think some of them put a lot of pressure on themselves," she said. "It is like a full-time job with everything that they have to do with practice and conditioning and athletic training. They have a lot of stuff to do.”

Torline said that having athletes become more open about their mental health struggles can further help eliminate the stigma around the topic.

“It’s very important and that’s why we try to do a lot of education with them and let them know that talking about it and letting people know that you’re struggling mentally is not anything of a sign of weakness,” Torline said. “That’s kind of hard for athletes sometimes; they want to be strong and tough and push through, and they have some issues that they feel is a sign of weakness.

"I think the stigma is going away on that, and we hope more and more.”

Torline said COVID-19 hit athletes especially hard at the onset because they had sports taken away from them. But even after they came back, the athletes were constricted to a “bubble” environment, which played an even greater factor on their mental health.

“They had sports taken away but even when they came back, they could practice and compete, they couldn’t go out and see people,” Torline said. “I know I talked with some men’s basketball players when the season was over and especially the new kids felt like they missed out on a lot. They just never got a feeling of the true experience of being in college and competing.”

For volleyball junior Megan Taflinger, the cancellation of games especially played a factor as the team had to slowly adjust to just playing against their teammates in practice.

“I think the ability to play against other teams is to test to see how good of a team you are,” Taflinger said. “Our team has stayed motivated during this whole thing as well as our coaches.

"But it would be nice to play someone else to see where we’re at. We don’t really have any perception on that scale. We’re only playing against each other.”

For cross country head coach Kirk Hunter, he felt that missing out on practices during the fall played a greater factor, especially since many of his athletes missed out on practice after the track and field season was  canceled last year.

“Right now, the only things these kids have to hold on to is practice,” Hunter said. “Last spring, when they took away the competition and the practices, it just destroyed my kids.

"My concern would be if we lose that. If we lose that, too, then I’m going to be very worried about my student-athletes. Right now, I think we can maintain as long as we at least have our practices, for now.”

This story was produced by WSU’s Advanced News Reporting class as part of the Wichita Journalism Collaborative, a partnership of seven media companies, including KMUW, working together to bring timely and accurate news and information to Kansans.