AMHERST (N.Y.) — University at Buffalo’s soccer team faced emotional challenges in recent seasons. The women’s numerous winning runs were offset by a few disappointing losses, injury setbacks, and the anguish of missed postseason opportunities, leaving players and coaches “extremely frustrated and disheartened.”
As UB enjoys its best start of the century, on a seven-game shutout streak with its highest RPI rank (31) in history, the Bulls believe they are in a better mental state than ever before. Players and coaches attribute much of that to mindfulness training the team began in preseason.
“It has completely changed everything for us,” senior defender Emily Lazenby said.
UB’s soccer weekly regimen now includes sessions with visiting coach Lucinda Snyder that incorporate yoga with mindfulness strategies.
“For me personally, it has been so transformative in being able to settled down during games, and play without worry,” Lazenby said. “The way we go into games and the way we are able to react in games now. I think it has 100% impacted the way we have started the season.”
Coach Shawn Burke recognized mental fitness as “something we need to train, just as much as we do on the field,” after coaches from all of UB’s sports underwent training with Ross Szabo, one of the most sought after mental health speakers in the country.
UB’s athletic department fortified its commitment to mental health education and services for students and staff over the past two years. The Bulls have teamed with One Last Goal, the local non-profit endowment established in the memory of former UB law student Matthew Benedict, who died by suicide in 2019 at age 26, as well as Hilinski’s Hope, a national advocacy foundation organized after Tyler Hilinski died by suicide in 2018 while a member of the Washington State football team.
“One of our top goals from a university standpoint was looking at the mental wellbeing of our student athletes,” said D’Ann Keller, UB’s senior associate athletics director, who has spearheaded the initiative.
“We want to normalize the conversation around mental health, giving student athletes the tools to be successful, and ultimately save lives. We have our coaches and staff go through the same training, so they can have the resources to talk to student athletes. And we recognize the barriers that our student athletes face when seeking mental health care. It could be financial, it could be cultural, and it could be the stigma that they don’t want to seem weak, or let down their teammates and coaches.”
“Probably one of the more overlooked topics in athletics,” football coach Maurice Linguist said as part of his video message. “How can we better serve our young people, as leaders, coaches and mentors, to make sure they stay in a great mental space.”
The Bulls will display helmet stickers with green ribbons recognizing mental health awareness during Saturday’s homecoming game at UB Stadium. Soccer and volleyball players will sport head bands with green ribbons, while coaches and staff will wear lapel pins. Green wristbands supporting Hilinski’s Hope will be available for fans.
Linguist noted how mental health challenges have increased for athletes in the social media era.
“You’re on TV and social media non-stop,” Linguist said. “The good things are always a highlight reel. And the not-so-good things are always a reel.
“So much messaging happens around your building that you really can’t control sometimes. And I think something we do a really solid job on is making sure that the messaging inside of our four walls stays consistent and strong, from everyone across the board, all the way through the building.”
Keller hopes the campaign will spark mental health conversations on and off campus.
“It’s not only student athletes,” Keller said. “Coming out of Covid, it’s the whole community, the whole nation suffering. We really want to normalize and have more comfort with having these conversations.”