By Michelle K. McMahon, Michigan Alum, Class of 2012
Published January 6, 2014
As I reflect on my student-athlete journey beginning six years ago as a freshman walk-on at the University of Michigan, I can’t resist shedding light on a topic that remains unmentioned in today’s culture and sports media.
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Playing a sport at Michigan was a dream come true for a local west Michigan girl like me, who pretty much came out of nowhere as a nobody. Though there are many perks to being an athlete, there are equally difficult mental trials and tribulations that every student-athlete must face. While it’s easy to point out the perks, many people forget to consider the 40-plus hours a week put in behind the scenes when 100,000 fans aren’t showing up to cheer. Sure, the glitz and glamor of game day is pretty incredible, but there are also the day-to-day difficulties of mentally managing the constant pressure of being a student-athlete.
Whether a highly touted recruit or a walk-on, the intense level of daily pressure, expectation and discipline remains the same in the classroom and in one’s sport, especially at Michigan. So it is quite easy to imagine how quickly the mental stability of a student-athlete can spiral downward when succumbed to the vast pressures from coaches, professors, family and fans. Who knew you could go from hero to zero on campus in a matter of seconds if you missed that buzzer-beating shot or that last field goal of the game?
Yes, these are the pressures we all signed up for as athletes, but the fact of the matter is, student-athletes are still human beings. It may look like we don’t care about our coach putting us on the bench for our mistakes, or the “you suck” chants, but you’d be surprised what type of self-defeating thoughts the mind is capable of tricking us into — even when we don’t show it on the outside.
There are resources for student-athletes with off-the-field problems that so many fans forget to factor in when making their criticisms, and that I dealt with so frequently when I was at the University. There are difference-makers off the court as well as on. The difference-maker for this University is a special member of the Athletic Department who gives all of his mentees a mental edge over their competitors: Greg Harden, director of Athletic Counseling and associate athletic director at Michigan. Harden is a man who puts in all of the work and receives none of the credit, which is why he deserves the title of unsung hero. I say this on behalf of any student-athlete who has utilized his mastery of the mind during their time at Michigan — yes, even the big-named athletes that seem to have it all together.
Harden is the man behind the scenes selflessly molding the mental strength of some of Michigan’s finest talent — the man on the sidelines endlessly supporting every student-athlete without expecting any glory or awards. He is the man who supports you when you throw that game-winning touchdown pass, and the same man who never turns his back on you when you “blow the game.”
Despite the great memories I have from my experience, I also really struggled throughout my athletic career at Michigan. Academics and making friends came easy, but the anxiety of going to practice every day ate me alive on the inside. I was not confident, certainly didn’t believe in myself and a complete mental disaster. I was struggling at rock bottom and needed help. The turning point in my story was Greg Harden.
I remember my first meeting in his office freshman year. I was so caught up in my self-pity, part of me expected him to coddle me and tell me everything was going to be OK. To my surprise, I received quite the opposite — the definition of tough love. His first reaction was, “The inner child in you needs to grow up.” Ouch. That one hurt. But he was right.
I’m surprised he didn’t turn and run the other direction when he heard I was coming back for round two the next week. “Never feel sorry for yourself,” he said. “Your current situation is difficult, but you have two choices: play the victim or adjust your mindset. Control the controllables — you are the only one that has control over your mind. Nobody else can touch that or take that away from you. Stop letting others determine the way you feel about yourself. Your volleyball experience is a merely stepping stone in the process of life.” Hello, reality check.
From day one he never guaranteed me playing time, or that practice would be easier; the only thing he ever guaranteed was that I was going to believe in myself and know exactly who I was by the time I left Michigan. “By the last day you walk out of my office your senior year, you will be able to point out your strengths, but more importantly your weaknesses, better than anyone else. Your sport is what you do, it should never define who you are. I want you to surround your life with the word, ‘believe’ from here on out.”
At a young age, he began molding my mind to believe and to think like a mature adult. He always had an endearing way of telling me everything I did not want to hear about myself, but it was exactly what I needed to hear during this critical age of self-concept.
I quickly realized this man was not just a sports psychologist. He opened up my world, reframing my mindset through his tough love and honest truths. He continuously challenged me to turn my self-defeating attitudes, thoughts and behaviors into self-confidence through assertiveness. Every week for four years this man empowered me with an unwavering positive attitude and mindset that I carry with me to this day.
In the big picture, I firmly believe mental strength is directly correlated with success, and that life outlook is a direct reflection of mindset and attitude. This also holds true when it comes to athletics and “rising to the occasion” in those pressure-filled, game-changing moments. Many athletes have god-given talent that takes them to the top; it’s the Tom Bradys of the world that conquer difficult mental trials and tribulations, that prove to be the most successful in the end.
Every athletic program deserves a “life coach” — I can’t fathom my experience without one. When I think about my Michigan experience, two short years ago, and continue to embark on my unconventional life path at age 23, I am frequently reminded of his everlasting impact. During my last meeting senior year, I told him my dream was to be on television for sports broadcasting. He looked me in the eye and smirked: “I already know you will, so go and get it. You are special, kid.” And at that moment, for the first time in my life, I truly believed in myself. Upon graduation, I achieved this dream at the Big Ten Network serving as a volleyball analyst in the fall. None of this would have happened without my mentor behind the scenes — the man who believed in me before I did.
I am a tiny speck in the pool of Michigan student-athletes, who have been so lucky to have this man as a mentor, and I credit all of my current life success to him. So on football Saturdays when the television camera zooms in on the star players, I’m looking past the winged helmets for the man on the sideline, the man in the background grinning in the success of his mentees, the man who would never take any of the credit — the unsung hero of Michigan Athletics.