About a quarter of male athletes and about 30 percent of female athletes report having anxiety, according to the American College of Sports Medicine.
About 10 percent of college athletes who have mental health conditions like these actually seek out resources and other ways to help with their symptoms.
Women’s soccer junior defender Sam Ondrush is doing more than her part to combat this issue. She is associated with organizations like Morgan’s Message, for which the women’s lacrosse team had a charity game dedicated to the organization, and Let’s Get Real.
And now, Ondrush was recently named a Campus Captain for another initiative called The Hidden Opponent. Founded by former Division I athlete Victoria Garrick Browne, The Hidden Opponent is a resource that provides education, support and awareness for student-athletes and their mental health.
Ondrush found out about the opportunity on social media and immediately took the chance to be a part of something special.
“It came about because I joined a Facebook page about a year ago, and it’s from The Hidden Opponent,” Ondrush said. “It’s student-athlete based, so they get to share their issues and struggles that they’re facing. And I always saw that they had this program called Campus Captains, which pretty much means you’re an ambassador for them. And I saw they had applications for it so I applied for it, and I got it.”
Ondrush also went in-depth on what The Hidden Opponent stands for when it comes to student-athletes and their mental health.
“Their mission is pretty much focused for student-athletes, but in general it’s all focused for all athletes and all students,” Ondrush said. “As a student-athlete, there’s that stigma that you can’t show weakness and that you’ll be judged for anything, so I think that definitely aligns. And I’ve struggled myself with mental health and I still do, so I think it’s important for everyone to feel comfortable being able to open up.”
The Hidden Opponent was founded only a few years ago by Browne, and the name was inspired by her TED Talk in 2017, which included her story about her mental health struggles, and how athletes around the world are dealing with a similar issue.
The organization states on its website that they are “passionate about elevating and amplifying the voices of student-athletes,” and they do that by posting stories from a variety of student-athletes detailing their struggles with mental health.
Mental health has become a major breaking point for more and more people across the country, something the coronavirus (COVID-19) has emphasized to a large degree.
But not a lot of attention is put on the athletic side of it and what athletes go through on a daily basis dealing with their sport and other responsibilities.
And yes, coaches and other athletic staff members are not excluded from this. The head coach of the women’s soccer team, Patrick Naughter, described how he got help and how anyone else going through a similar issue can follow suit.
“I tell these guys all the time about how I’ve had my struggles with depression and anxiety and still to this day,” Naughter said. “I think I’m in a good place right now. I’ve found a therapist who is working really hard and that I really click with. I tell them all the time when your ankle hurts, you go to the trainer. But if you’re not feeling right, you got to work and get it done.”
And one of the greatest basketball players to ever hit the hardcourt has also endorsed the organization. The late Kobe Bryant, in his novel released in 2020 called “Geese are Never Swans,” listed The Hidden Opponent as a resource.
Graduate student defender Kylinn Kraemer knows that the women’s soccer team is tough and always there for each other no matter what, almost like a resemblance of the Mamba Mentality that Bryant lived by his whole life.
“I think we have pushed through so many obstacles as a team, this past year especially, both individually and as a team,” Kraemer said. “I feel like we really rallied behind them, and we hit some obstacles as a team, but we are a very resilient team, and we have become very close because of those obstacles.”
The women’s soccer team on paper seems like nothing can stop them, with a record of 6-0 to start the season and senior midfielder Kimberly Campbell and junior midfielder Aileen Cahill already having three goals on the season. But what goes on behind the scenes for each member of the team is something that not a lot of people shine a light on.
Ondrush hopes to bring her work with The Hidden Opponent all throughout campus and specifically the athletics program since a project she did on mental health on athletes did not pan out as well as she wanted, and Ondrush wants the answers put out there.
Ondrush also wants sports psychologists on staff as well since other schools within the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) have them, and giving students that safe space to talk is important to her.
Naughter believes Ondrush is important to the women’s soccer team as well, and he saw it ever since recruitment.
“[Ondrush] is amazing,” Naughter said. “This isn’t something that all of a sudden has become important to her. This is something that has been important to [Ondrush] for a long time, and it’s not a hashtag movement, it is something that she believes in. She is going to work really hard to help people, and it’s super inspiring. It’s not surprising because even during the recruiting process, I was like ‘man this kid is special.’ She cares about other people and she’s a very thoughtful person.”
A Montclair State chapter of The Hidden Opponent is currently in the process of being approved by the Student Government Association.
And it is OK to not be OK. There are people out there to help with whatever anyone is going through mentally. Ondrush is looking to make that message clear in order to help students on the journey to defeat their hidden opponents.