By Jimmy Robertson
Virginia Tech Athletics’ impetus on addressing mental health issues continued recently when Victoria Garrick, a former volleyball player at the University of Southern California and noted mental health advocate, made the cross country journey to Blacksburg to discuss mental health topics with Virginia Tech student-athletes and staff members in mid-February.
Garrick, a one-time walk-on to the No. 1-ranked volleyball team in the nation who went on to a record-setting collegiate career, began publicly advocating for student-athlete mental health during her sophomore season at USC after dealing with anxiety and depression. She delivered a TEDx Talk on the topic in 2017 that has garnered 257,000 views on YouTube, and the now-noted national public speaker and podcast host has seen her work on the topics of mental health and body image featured in The Players’ Tribune, USA Today College, Popsugar magazine, and through her social media accounts of a combined 200,000 followers.
And interestingly, the power of social media actually led to her visiting Virginia Tech.
Last spring, a group of Tech student-athletes worked with the department’s Office of Student-Athlete Development and formed THRIVE – a program designed to address mental health topics with other student-athletes in small group settings. A team of ambassadors, now called the “THRIVE Tribe,” was created, and they, with the help Natalie Forbes (senior director of student-athlete personal development) and Lauren Naldo (counseling and athletic mental performance staff counselor), held two workshops this past fall.
This past December, they came to Forbes with the idea of bringing Garrick to campus.
On Feb. 17, Garrick spoke to three different groups within the Virginia Tech Athletics Department. The first event was with Tech’s coaches and support staff, including those who worked in the areas of academic advising, sports medicine, nutrition, student-athlete development, and strength and conditioning. More than 50 attended the session.
Garrick shared her story of how she coped with mental health struggles even though she enjoyed a successful playing career. She also told the coaches and support staff what to look for among their respective student-athletes who may be struggling and how to start a conversation with them about those struggles. She encouraged them to provide an environment that fosters growth.
Garrick used activities, videos from NBA star LeBron James and former star Kobe Bryant (who passed away not long ago in a helicopter crash), and her own personal stories to engage the group. Afterward, Gary Bennett – associate athletics director for sport psychology – conducted a Q&A session with her that connected her experiences with some of the same things he and his staff see among Virginia Tech student-athletes.
“Victoria’s visit to the Virginia Tech Athletics Department far exceeded our expectations,” Bennett said. “The session she had with our coaches and other staff members opened the eyes of everyone in the room about the reality of mental health issues and college athletics.”
The second session – entitled “Mind Matters – was open to any student-athlete, and more than 100 attended. Again, Garrick shared her story, and she used videos, memes and her personal experiences to help the student-athletes relate. She covered topics of anxiety, depression, performance struggles, stress, the impact of social media, and other areas of mental health, and she gave them some takeaways to help them improve their mental health.
In closing, she told them to devote some time to mental well-being, and she encouraged them to reach out for support. She stayed afterward for impromptu discussions with student-athletes seeking advice and with those who simply wanted to thank her.
The final session – entitled “Rise and THRIVE” – was open only to female student-athletes and centered more on body image, body positivity, and self-esteem. The THRIVE group teamed with “Rise” – a women’s leadership group through the Leadership Institute within the Tech athletics department – to create the topics and program structure for this session. Approximately 50 female student-athletes attended.
Garrick shared her experiences on body image and her struggles as an athlete, and then Forbes and Shelby Miller (senior director of student-athlete leadership development) coordinated activities that included breaking into small groups and discussing three topics: empowering self-talk, comparisons to others (and not doing that), and gratitude.
The goals were to create discussion, generate some self-reflection, and maybe most importantly, to create a community among one another. After the event, Garrick stayed for more than an hour to speak with student-athletes who wanted to share their own struggles or experiences, or ask questions.
“I am so glad I got a chance to listen to Victoria and hearing her college journey and experiences,” Tech women’s tennis player Nika Kozar said. “She is such a positive person, and I loved listening to her. I could relate to Victoria on a lot of different levels, and just hearing how she dealt with her problems helped me a lot. I realized how important it is to be comfortable in your own body, and that it is okay to have bad days, too. I had implemented a lot of things she talked about in my daily life, and it has been helping me so far. A huge shout-out to student development for organizing events like this and helping student-athletes learn from the best!”
Garrick’s time and efforts not only made an impact on Virginia Tech Athletics as a whole, but she, too, received gratification for what she heard and witnessed from the entire Tech family.
“My experience at Virginia Tech was absolutely incredible,” Garrick said. “Every single member of their athletics department shared the same unifying passion to better the lives and experiences of their student-athletes. Not only was it amazing to witness, but as a student-athlete who has suffered from depression and anxiety, it was extremely comforting to learn how much this athletic administration cares for the well-being of their players. Not to mention, their student-athletes were just as special.
“Over 90 players voluntarily showed up to the evening talk to learn about mental health and de-stigmatize the conversation on campus. This participation was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it was an absolute honor to share my story with them. I am so grateful for this experience and can’t wait to see how this conversation continues to thrive for the Hokies.”
Once again, Virginia Tech Athletics – and specifically, the THRIVE Tribe and Office of Student-Athlete Development – continue to break down barriers as they pertain to mental health. All remain committed to future discussions on difficult and sensitive topics and there will be future events, whether they be in the form of guest speakers and/or workshops.
For sure, all who attended Garrick’s day with them came away impacted – and that was the goal.
“Her visit to the Virginia Tech Athletics Department left an incredibly positive impact on our coaches, staff, and student-athletes that will not soon be forgotten,” Forbes said. “She shared her story with such vulnerability, honesty, and grace that it was near impossible to leave without feeling moved by her journey. The coaches and staff session brought to light the struggles that our student-athletes could be having within, and how we, as a department, can support and provide a nurturing environment that fosters growth for the athletes we work with daily.
“Her time spent with our student-athletes exceeded any expectations we could have imagined. Her real conversation and open dialogue created a space that allowed our student-athletes to understand that they are not alone and empowered them to face their struggles and leave knowing they have the strength within to reach out and ask for help.
“I can say, with confidence that Victoria Garrick made us better, and created a conversation around student-athlete mental health that will continue to benefit the Hokie family for years to come.”