As Athletes for Hope continues to evolve and adapt to the ever-changing needs of students across the country, we are thrilled to announce that the AFH Fit Program has undergone a transformation this summer and will now be known as the CHAMPS Program.
Originally created to address the critical issue of childhood obesity, AFH Fit has been a part of hundreds of classrooms nationwide, impacting hundreds of thousands of kids. As the need for mental wellness in schools grows, AFH Fit has combined with our H.E.A.R.T. Curriculum to put children’s mental and physical well-being first.
Only one in four children in the U.S. is getting the recommended amount of physical activity each day. Getting kids moving – no matter the time of year – is important now more than ever as rates of depression and anxiety in youth have surged, a trend that has only intensified due to changes and stressors since the COVID-19 pandemic (www.childrenscolorado.org, 2023). According to Mental Health America, as of 2022 over 10% of America’s youth have severe major depression with approximately 15% having experienced a major depressive episode within the previous year.
Leveraging the structure of AFH Fit, the CHAMPS curriculum will integrate mental wellness lessons alongside our existing physical movement and leadership activities, creating a holistic approach to youth well-being. Program participants can expect to see brand new on-demand videos, student workbooks, and teacher guides that pair with each of the 6 sessions following the curriculum brought to them by professional, Olympic, Paralympic, and collegiate athletes.
The monthly sessions reinforce the importance of physical activity, and children’s mental wellness, help to identify helpful behaviors and practices that promote daily mental health, and create a setting for open conversations about what wellness means for kids.
If you are a teacher who is interested in bringing an athlete to your classroom this fall (virtually or in-person), please fill out this signup form by September 29, 2023.
Just another player: How David Kubiak found joy in baseball
From college baseball to 36th round MLB draft pick to securing spots in 4 different organizations, David Kubiak’s baseball journey has been a series of ups and downs.
Many baseball players picture themselves being drafted and having a long and lustrous career in the majors, but that is oftentimes not the case. Kubiak was cut from the Tampa Bay Rays on the last day of spring training and two years later found himself in Independent ball before taking time away from the game.
“I think I still had some left in the tank,” Kubiak said.
Upon his return to baseball, he went on to play several years in the Frontier League and Atlantic League before playing in the minors again. Stints in Mexico, Taiwan, Venezuela, and the Dominican Republic have brought him to where he is today, playing winter ball.
While it is a windy path, Kubiak counts his blessings for being able to play the game he loves for a living.
“I was fortunate enough to get drafted,” he said. “I probably would have played four or five years, now I’m in my twelfth. The stability of affiliated ball is fickle for sure.”
Whether it is the politics within baseball or the sheer number of talents, Kubiak found himself in a unique position. On two separate occasions he decided to take a step away from the game, and each time he came back with a positive attitude.
As a “faith-driven career,” baseball’s landscape is not for everybody, and mental health is an essential piece to the sport.
“Mental health is finally starting to make its way into normal, non-taboo talk,” Kubiak said. “When I grew up it was kind of just shut up and play. You just wear it.”
The direction sports is headed in the mental health space has carved out roles for people like Kubiak to become advocates, sharing their stories and helping others find peace.
Kubiak serves as Marketing and VIP Relations Coordinator at WhiteFlag App, a mental health app dedicated to changing the way people communicate and heal. He has worked with dozens of clients and ambassadors to help promote the app and change lives.
He doesn’t try to mask his own struggles either.
“I wasn’t happy playing,” Kubiak said about the times he had to step away. “It wasn’t fun to come to the field every day and that wasn’t how I wanted sports to be.”
His support system at home and two years of therapy have helped Kubiak realize that he is not alone.
“Everybody goes through this stuff, everybody has insecurities no matter how much people tell you they don’t,” he added. “It’s nice to have somewhere to outlet that.”
The resources being invested in the game from mental skills coaches to other athletes who have struggled speaking out are a few ways in which baseball is helping their own.
David Kubiak may not have had the easiest journey, but he has found happiness within himself after every twist and turn.
“Mental health is a really important part of sports,” Kubiak said. “I’m really glad it’s starting to come out of the shadows.”
For University of Texas swimmer Riley Courtney, she knew when it was time to step out of the pool and focus on her mental health.
Her eating disorder had begun to consume her life and impact her performance in the water. She entered the locker room one afternoon with her entire team present and explained the situation. Essentially, she told them she needed a break.
“I was really worried about people thinking that I wasn’t committed or that I wasn’t hard-working,” Courtney said.
Instead of viewing Riley as a quitter or feeling dismayed towards their teammate, the team rallied around her. Through hugs and messages, Riley’s departure away from the pool was the strongest decision she could have made in their eyes.
The University of Texas women’s swimmers do periodic shout-outs to one another for performing well or doing something good for themselves. Riley’s shout-out and the sense of community surrounding the program helped her overcome the internal battles. It gave her people to turn to in her time of need.
Swimming was a prominent piece of who she was at that moment, but when she decided to take time for herself, she not only learned the power of a healthy mindset but that she was capable of even more in her sport.
“Everyone was on the same page that I was doing a different kind of work outside of the pool,” Courtney said. “That made me feel like I was bettering myself in the sport, because even though I’m not training physically…I’m working on a totally different aspect of myself that is going to help me.”
And even though she was not swimming, she still attended practices and meets to cheer on the same teammates who supported her day in and day out.
Through the first few weeks, Riley felt all sorts of emotions, from frustration to impatience. She simply wanted to be back on the deck where she belonged with her anger rooted in a “genuine desire to swim.”
She decided that her well-being was more important, though, and this decision to improve her mind and body exclusively allowed for her to improve. She stopped blaming herself for letting the team down and began to view her self-help as crucial to her individual success and contributions.
“By helping me I’m helping my team,” Courtney said. “I was actively working very hard.”
Outside of the sport, Riley’s interactions with friends and family reflected that of someone with an eating disorder. Yet even when she tried to mask her problems, her support system remained intact.
They disassociated Riley from the eating disorder, and that made all the difference.
“My best friends came to treatment with me and came to therapy with me to learn how to help me,” Riley said with a smile. “I didn’t like leaning on other people for help, and I have done a really good job of doing that.”
This realization helped save her life, and Courtney recognizes the importance of relationships in battling a mental illness.
She knows it is never good to battle solo.
“Lean on the people that care about you and love you,” Courtney said.
Athletes for Hope Chief Wellbeing Officer, Suzanne Potts LMSW, MPH, joined NewsNation live to discuss athlete mental health in the wake of Simone Biles’s return to sport.NewsNation, a Nexstar Media Group, is the fastest-growing national cable news network reaching 70 million television households across the United States.To watch the full segment, please click here.
On Friday morning, I had the opportunity to speak with the NewsNation journalist, Marni Hughes, to discuss the recent return to sport by Simone Biles after a much-needed mental health break. I was thrilled to be invited on behalf of Athletes for Hope to speak about athlete mental health and advocate for the millions of athletes who may be struggling.
While the segment only lasted 4 minutes, I had so much more to share about this crucial topic.
If I’d had more time, I would have shared our why:
Mental health challenges impact athletes of all levels. Approximately 35% of elite athletes and 33% of collegiate athletes experience mental health disruptions.
Athletes face a unique stigmaand challenge in seeking help. Out of the 33% of collegiate athletes that experience mental illness, only 10% go on to seek and receive support.
Athletes are incredibly vulnerable to developing additional disorders. Female athletes are at a higher risk for eating disorders, and male athletes are at a higher risk for substance abuse.
In 2022, there were 5 NCAA student-athletes who died by suicide. There are too many losses in this space. I’d mention Tyler, Arlana, Sarah, Morgan, and Katie, to name a few incredible student-athletes who are missed deeply by their families, friends, and teammates. Their lives continue to have an impact on so many as we learn about their stories.
If I had more time, I’d share why I think more athletes should speak out about their mental health.
At Athletes for Hope, we believe athletes help model positive self-care, they normalize seeking help, and create space for others to learn about mental health. They are fierce competitors, role models in communities, and people who struggle with their mental health just like everyone else. However, while data suggest that athletes have higher rates of mental illness than the general public yet there is no systemic process or one clear entity responsible for athletes at all levels to access and receive mental health support.
I would definitely want to share solutions to address athlete mental health. For example, solutions could include:
Helping reduce the stigma by talking about their mental health journey
Establishing team mental health check in’s
Providing training for athletes, coaches, and trainers to spot and identify athletes struggling with their mental health
Establishing a National Athlete Mental Health Bill of Rights, which could include topics such as:
Maintaining a healthy body and body image
Access to services that are equitable and representative
Support through the transition out of sport
Training and education about athlete mental health for athletes, coaches, and trainers that are trauma-informed
We believe athlete voices should be heard when they speak out about their mental health experiences, and want to encourage more athletes to feel comfortable telling their stories. We have built a community of athletes, partners, and stakeholders to engage in this national discussion and encourage others to join us.
It’s no surprise that teams like the USWNT are working to raise awareness about athlete mental health. They have been trailblazers and advocates on and off the pitch for decades. Athletes like Simone Biles, Brittney Griner, Kevin Love, and so many others exhibit resilience, provide hope and empower others to share their stories. They confidently use their platforms for good, to help others who may be struggling with their mental health. Our Whole Being Athlete program was created to provide athletes at all levels to raise awareness, access, and acceptability of mental health resources for all athletes. For all of us at Athletes for Hope, we’ll be cheering for Biles, Griner, Oskaka, and the USWNT in their athletic and mental health journeys, and can’t wait to see them shine.
Athletes are not defined by their body or their sport
By: Isabelle Irani
When I was 12 years old, I started swimming at a competitive level. The pressure in women’s athletics is imperceivable to those who have never experienced it, and as a young swimmer who experienced quick progression to a national level, being an athlete became a part of my identity. As I transitioned into a new version of swimming, the only thing I noticed was that I looked different.
As a south asian woman in a diverse city like Houston, I always had other people of color around me. People who I was able to relate to, people who looked like me. That type of community was limited in club swimming. The constant comparison started, and I began to realize that I wasn’t like the other girls I swam with every day. And so, my journey with mental health and representation in athletics began.
I fell into a rabbit hole of comparison. Every day at practice I would become angry with the fact that my body looked different than so many of the other girls, angry that they all seemed to have similar backgrounds and similar lives, and I felt as if I was alone. Unfortunately, my anger was expressed at home, and facing my parents’ innocent questions like “How was practice?” seemed to drive me over the edge.
How was I supposed to say “I hate myself, I hate my body, I hate that everyone seems to be doing better than me in school and in swimming.”, without making them think I was weak? I would explode when someone would comment on any imperfection of mine; panic and tears shed over every bad test grade, every bad practice, and race, and every time someone commented on what I looked like. My relationship with my parents broke more and more each time I pushed them away. I felt so obligated to a standard of perfection; if I wasn’t a perfect student and a perfect athlete, then who was I?
Luckily, I have an amazing mother who realized that something was wrong, and she was able to convince me to accept help from a therapist. Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and high-functioning anxiety, it was soon discovered that with all the comparison to others I had done, I had forgotten who I was myself. I still remember in one of my first sessions, I was asked to describe what values I liked within myself. Not one thing came to mind. Five years later, after hundreds of hours in therapy, and countless conversations with friends, teammates, coaches, and my parents, I have realized what my values are.
I value the strength that my body possesses, and what it allows me to do every day in the pool- not what it looks like. I value learning new information and applying knowledge in a fulfilling way- not whether my grade was an A or a B. I value my family’s culture, my different experiences, and what makes me unique- the color of my skin doesn’t define me or my ability in athletics.
Getting help from a professional helped me realize that my thoughts were not who I was. My identity was never tied to my appearance, academics, or my performance in the pool, I was always ENOUGH.
Now, I often forget how I am perceived in my sport. I forget that I look different, I forget that my skin color is darker than many other swimmers around me, I forget that my body looks different than many other female athletes, and I forget all the things I used to focus all of my attention on. I forget small aspects of my sport that so many others focus their attention on because I was able to realize that those are not the aspects of being a student-athlete that I value.
Staying true to my values as a student and an athlete gave me the opportunity to do many amazing things, including now, as I attend my second-semester swimming Division 1 at The University of Maine. I work to remember and live my values every day and have so much pride as we enter a new age of diversity in swimming and sports. I hope to use my time left as a collegiate athlete to remind athletes that you are never alone, and you have never been defined by your appearance or ability.
If you are ever struggling, it’s okay to ask for help.
Casey Zeller is a former USA track & field athlete turned professional stunt performer. She has been a stunt performer on television shows and movies such as The Walking Dead, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, Avengers: Endgame, and Spider-Man: Homecoming.
When you fall in love with a sport, hobby, or career, your passion drives you to live and breathe everything you have into it. The sport then shifts, shapes, and forms us into the people we are today through the difficult practices, many coaches, teammates, competitions, travels, and sacrifices we make along the way.
My first love was gymnastics at the age of five. Since I could remember, my mom always told me, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” So, I set my mind on the Olympics as a gymnast. I was a natural and rose quickly through the competitive levels in 6 short years.
No one questioned why I wanted to go to the Olympics because they saw how hard I worked and my relentless determination to get to Level 10 and beyond.
But at 10 years old, at Level 8, my mom forced me to quit due to the toxic coaching environment. My dreams were shattered and I had no say in the matter because I was just a child.
Not long afterward, I tried out for my middle school track team as a promise kept to my best friend. We vowed that if we ever left gymnastics we would try out for the track team. Shortly after joining the team, I was flying past all the high schoolers to the finish line. My coaches told me I had great talent, so I once again set my sights on the Olympics, but for track this time. I powered through my high school years and landed a full track scholarship as a heptathlete and 400m hurdler.
Unfortunately, my college career was not kind to me. Years of overtraining and coaches pushing me to compete through injuries ad illness had caught up to me. My body was burnt out. Even when my college professor told me that I would never make it to the Olympics because it wasn’t in my genetics, I was determined to prove him wrong. I kept believing that I could do anything I set my mind to and refused to give up.
But after a tragic ending to my college career, I decided to take some time off. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever return to the sport again but after a year, I reset my sights on my dream. I moved to Atlanta and got a new coach. We didn’t have a track, so I trained for the 400m hurdles at Piedmont Park. Injuries once again plagued me. Two months before the 2012 Olympic Trials I broke my foot and ankle- dashing any hope to make the team that Olympiad. I was devastated but I rehabbed and kept training. I went through 3 coaches hoping to find the right fit. By the time I found the right coach, my body was already too far gone, and my dreams were out of reach.
Middle school, high school, college, then professionally; I spent 15 years always chasing what I knew in my heart that I could do. Never accepting that my best years could be behind me, yet I consistently repeated the cycle until an injury put me out for yet another season.
The doctors told me that if I kept going, I would be in a wheelchair by the time I turned 30. I didn’t want to believe them. Track was everything to me, but it was costing me my body, my mental health, my financial well-being, and my life. So, I reluctantly retired. Left to question if my mom had been wrong the entire time-maybe I can’t do whatever I set my mind to.
For a year I wandered aimlessly trying to find a new sense of purpose. For half my life Track and Field defined me and my career: Track athlete, Track coach, B.S., and M.S. in Sports Management, USATF Athlete Advisor, and US Jr Pan Am Staff member. So, I sat and thought, “Who am I without track? Why did it define me? Did it define me?” These questions set me on a battle with depression, unlike anything I’ve experienced. I would look in the mirror and no longer recognize the athlete I used to be. I was just an empty shadow of who I once was. Unable to do what I felt I was born to do.
It was then I realized that I had to find who I was -unattached to any sport or career. I finally learned how important it is to be passionate about something but never let it define you. So, I took time to look inside myself. I spoke to my peers and began my quest of self-discovery. It was hard, long, and quite frankly, it never truly ends. Through reading books, going to therapy, personal research, holistic practices, meditation, feel good exercise-I found a way to be healthy and better manage the stresses that came into my life. I was able to find a way through that dark time and open my mind to other possibilities that I had never known existed.
I started trying anything and everything that came in to my life that challenged me: CrossFit, fitness/bikini competitions, BJJ, film background work, etc. One day while working on set as an extra, some stunt performers noticed how athletic I was and asked if I had ever thought about doing stunts. I replied, “What is that?” They laughed and invited me to come train with them and I thought, “Why not?!”
A month later, I was tafted into the SAG-AFTRA union and I hit the ground running, learning anything and everything I could.
It was a hard transition from a seasoned Track and Field athlete to the bottom of the totem pole in an industry I knew nothing about. It’s been almost 10 years now and I have created a new career for myself as a professional stuntwoman in the film and entertainment industry. But I have learned my lesson. Stunts do not define the person I am. It’s become my passion and career but it is not who I AM. Every day I wake up and try to find balance within myself and my life to keep me grounded in who I am as a person. There are still hardships that come and go but I have an arsenal of tools that I can use at my disposal now.
I hope my story can help shed some light on how the world and athletes define themselves in sports. We have so much more to offer than just our physical capabilities and performances. I encourage anyone reading this to never stop asking yourself important questions like Why. Why do you want what you do? Why do you want to go where you want to go? Why do you want to feel the way you want to feel? Why do you want to be who you want to be? These are questions that will keep us true to who we are – aside from our passions, sports, and goals.
Sometimes all you have to do is open YOUR mind and consider all YOUR possibilities because they are endless.