As an athlete, there is a certain toughness or bravery that you are expected to display at all times. But, one of the bravest things you can do as a human being is admit that you aren’t invincible. RGVFC goalkeeper Ben Willis is showing his courage by choosing to discuss his battle with mental health.
“It’s something I still struggle with daily,” Willis told BGN. “Balancing the competitiveness of wanting to be a better player, person and winning in everything and admitting that I need help is so hard. When I make a mistake, even a minor one, it keeps me awake for days and I dwell on things for way too long.”
“At times it gets to points where I don’t eat for a couple days at a time and sleeping is non existent. Because of the vulnerability of admitting I have mental health troubles, thats why it took so long for me to seek help. The sense of invincibility and toughness, I always just thought I could handle it on my own. But it gets to a point where that just wasn’t possible anymore.”
Willis was inspired by NBA stars like Kevin Love , who launched the Kevin Love Fund in the fight against mental health, and DeMar DeRozan, who both went public with their battles with mental health in recent years. “Those guys coming out and talking about their struggles with mental health got me more comfortable with talking to others about my mental health,” he explained. “Kevin Love is one of the big reasons why I started to seek outside help with my mental health.”
“Seeing guys at the top of their game in the NBA talking about struggles they have gone through and continue to go through makes it a little bit easier to talk about because I know I’m not alone with it. Other athletes struggle with similar things I am going through.”
This past offseason, he made the big step of talking to a therapist and was also diagnosed with anxiety. “It took me a good 5-6 years before going to see a therapist to talk about everything and even longer than that to go to a doctor to be prescribed medication to help me with my anxiety and stress,” he said.
That time frame goes back to Ben’s time at Gonzaga University. “I started noticing my anxiety increase during my freshman year of college. It got to the point where I didn’t enjoy anything at school and wanted to quit soccer,” he explained. That feeling actually led him to take a redshirt year after his freshman season. Willis recalled, “The summer between my freshman and sophomore year of college, I didn’t touch a soccer ball and was completely ready to hang up my gloves and call it a career in soccer. It wasn’t fun. My mental health took over in negative ways and took the joy away from everything I was doing; I didn’t want to hang out with anyone, I didn’t enjoy the things I normally did. I just wasn’t happy.” Willis returned to soccer with Gonzaga and then started a professional career with RGVFC, where he kept one clean sheet in four matches last season.
As a goalkeeper on the pitch and an introvert off of it, it’s not abnormal to find himself alone, which allows his anxiety to manifest. “Those are the moments that it really kicks in and I get into my own head,” Willis said. “Ive always been an introverted person and I try to keep to myself. But being alone often causes things to spiral out of control. I get uncomfortable in large groups of people so it’s difficult for me to figure out how to be in the right situation to help with my mental health by staying in a comfortable zone to manage things.”
“This is the biggest dilemma I run into so often where I know being around others will help manage my mental health, but at the same time it’s an uncomfortable situation for me to be in by being around other people.”
An important part of taking on any challenge, mental or physical, is the people around you. Ben includes his brothers, his girlfriend, and his parents in his support system. “My whole support network knew I have mental issues and have helped me a lot,” he said. “They all helped me become more comfortable with being vulnerable and talking to a professional.”
Willis hasn’t discussed his mental health with his teammates yet, but he does have another person that supports him with the club: RGVFC athletic trainer Randi Lininger. “Ben would come in for pre or post-treatment and have small talk about whatever – the day, soccer, life,” Lininger said. “I encourage open dialogue with my athletes. I was glad that Ben felt comfortable enough to come to me to discuss his concerns.”
“Athletic trainers are well versed in healthcare including mental health. So my background stems from just being an AT, then continues on with having my Masters Degree in Sports Psychology. But, also from my own personal matters.”
While Randi’s primary role with the club is to keep players healthy physically, she acknowledges the importance of the mental side, too. “Mental health is a huge component for health and well-being, especially for athletes,” she explained. “Mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or even stress that aren’t addressed can increase risk of injury and illness, impact rehab/recovery, hinder return to play after injury, and even affect performance. Treating the athlete means treating the full person. The mind-body connection is a powerful thing.”
As he works his way back from an injury that kept him out of action for the Toros when the season restarted, Ben Willis will also be making sure to make his mental health a priority as well.