The Ohio State football team has begun summer workouts, eager to build on spring practice after a 2020 season that the pandemic turned into a minefield.
The Buckeyes missed out on a lot of physical work a year ago because of practice limitations. Coach Ryan Day has said they need to continue making up for that.
But football is as much mental as physical, and the Buckeyes were put through the wringer that way as well in 2020. In an interview with The Dispatch, Day was candid about his and his team’s struggles. He believes the Buckeyes will be stronger for it this season.
“I think they had to mature,” Day said. “I think they learned about themselves. They had to become self-starters. They found out things that worked and didn’t work.”
Mental health is a personal issue to Day, whose father died by suicide when Ryan was 9. After he became head coach in 2019, Day and his wife Nina created the Ryan and Christina Day Fund for Pediatric and Adolescent and Mental Wellness at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
He had no way of knowing then that COVID-19 would force mental health to the forefront during last season. But he and others in the program believe his familiarity with and passion for the issue was invaluable.
Day likened the mental health battle to lifting weights. The body must become conditioned to it. Otherwise, the weight becomes too much to bear.
“If you’re strong and you have really good mental health, when you go through difficult times, you come out the back end and actually become stronger,” he said. “I think for a lot of us, it made us stronger. Now that we’re coming out the back end of it, I know that a lot of people are doing some good self-work to try to make sure they that they get themselves healthy.”
Ohio State has long been among the leaders in treating its athletes’ mental health. In the 1990s, it hired a post-doctorate fellow in sports psychology, Chris Carr, who’s now with the Green Bay Packers. Ohio State has dedicated to the athletic program a four-person sports psychology and wellness services team led by Jamey Houle.
“There are probably only four or five other programs that have that many full-time for athletics,” Houle said.
A former Ohio State gymnast, Houle understands the pressure that Buckeye athletes face on and off the field.
“It can definitely be intense,” he said.
And that’s during normal times. Last year, Ohio State players imposed a sort of self-quarantine in hopes of staving off COVID. They endured daily testing and a hermit-like existence away from the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.
“It was tough on us,” wide receiver Chris Olave said. “It felt like we were really in a box. We’d go to practice and to lift and come straight back home. We couldn’t really do anything. All our games were on ESPN, but people didn’t see what was really happening. We were practicing a ton wearing masks, in isolation. A lot of stuff we were doing during the season was really hard on people.
“Coach Day pushed that mental health. He really emphasized that during the season, and it helped guys out.”
Before the pandemic, Day encouraged the athletic department’s mental-health therapists to come to get to know players, even inviting them on the sidelines during practice. After COVID hit and as much as possible had to be done virtually, he included them on Zoom calls.
“His advocacy, I can’t speak highly enough of,” Houle said. “Anytime we normalize the experience of seeking help, you’re going to get way more prevention where people are on the front of things versus when things are really spiraling out of control.
“Same for coach (Chris) Holtmann with basketball. When they talk openly about seeking help and how normal that is, these guys now look up to them and say, ‘Wow, I can do that, too. I know it works.’ That really is amazing. We feel very, very lucky to have him as the head coach.”
Day projected an air of calm leadership throughout last year in guiding the Buckeyes to the national title game. But he acknowledges that he struggled as well.
“You feel like you’re out of control,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you’re responsible for the results. And that was very, very hard.”
In an effort to stay COVID-free, Day lived much of the season apart from his family in the guest quarters adjacent to his house. The Days have three young children, and that separation also took a toll, Nina said.
“I just saw it in his eyes how concerned he was for so many people and the stress he was under with the kids and all that,” she said. “But he tries to practice what he preaches. He took the steps necessary to make sure that he stayed afloat because so many people were relying on him. If he broke, then I would have probably broke, the kids would have broke, his team would have broke. So he took care of himself and did what he needed to do for himself emotionally and mentally and physically.”
Day said he got counseling when needed.
“It’s like going to the doctor if you need to get a checkup, and there’s certainly times when I’ve used that before,” he said. “More times than not, you leave feeling better about yourself.”
For a physical release, Day often played tennis in the morning with OSU men’s coach Ty Tucker and his team.
“I tried to hit the ball as hard as I can,” he said. “You’ve got to have somewhat an outlet.”
Treating mental health is in some ways more difficult than treating a physical injury.
“Psychiatry is the only part of medicine that doesn’t do imaging for the organ that it deals with,” Houle said. “We know that so much psychology is not just ‘brain stuff.’ It’s context, it’s culture, it’s development. That makes it very tricky. It’s not like, ‘I have depression, take this medication, and it goes away.’
“Because you might still be in the environment that is triggering the depression. Or you might have co-occurring stuff — anxiety and depression or PTSD and depression. So it makes it it’s much more difficult to pinpoint, and treat directly.”
There’s also the stigma associated with mental health, which Ryan and Nina Day have been vocal about trying to end.
The Ohio State athletic department’s commitment to mental health continues to evolve. This year, Houle said, therapists will be dedicated to specific teams, with Candice Williams for football. In August, Ohio State will add a psychiatrist, Dr. Josh Norman, who will work specifically with the athletic department one day a week. Unlike psychologists, psychiatrists can prescribe medication.
“It’s going to be huge because one of the big things with psychiatry is the wait,” Houle said. “Some people are waiting 3-4 months to see a psychiatrist. We’re going to have a psychiatrist on call for athletics 20% of the time.”
Nobody on the Ohio State team would want to repeat 2020, even though the Buckeyes advanced to the national title game. The uncertainty, isolation and stress almost caused them to reach the breaking point.
But Day believes enduring that crucible will be healthy for his team in the long run. In fact, he pointed to the Buckeyes’ blowout victory in the playoff semifinal as proof.
“The way we played the Clemson game was special, and I think that had a lot to do with the way we handled the season,” he said. “Hopefully, it starts to pay off (even more) as we head into next season.”