SPORTS:
THE NEW ERA OF WELLNESS

EP4: The Unspoken Truths About Mental Health For Athletes

In the wake of the Tokyo Olympics and the powerful truths athletes have been speaking, today, we sit down with Vanessa Gidden, professional athlete and founder of Athletes4Athlete, and Dr. Nicole Williams, former professional basketball player and emergency physician sports medicine enthusiast. We talk about the unseen and unspoken truths about mental health for athletes, the financial barriers they experience, and the importance of having mental health resources readily available for collegiate and professional athletes.

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ABOUT THE SPEAKERS

VANESSA GIDDEN is the founder of Athlete4Athletes and a professional athlete. She has competed at the highest level for over 14 years, playing in the WNBA and the Euro-league. She’s also learned some hard truths along her journey, namely, that the balance between player and agent is not all it could be. Vanessa established Athlete4Athletes so as to apply her learning, reduce the stigma attached to player-agent relationships and help to nurture strong player-agent relationships that truly benefit both parties.

 

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Athlete 4 Athletes is an organization built to pave the way for professional basketball players. They are committed to fostering the support of our athletes by giving them all the necessary tools to succeed in the world of professional sports.

 

In light of the recent pandemic, many athletes have fallen short of the normal exposure and opportunities to become a professional athlete. Athlete 4 Athletes are committed to maximum exposure, bringing Agent and player together and providing guidance to the athletes as they make these very important decisions. They have developed partnerships with some of the best agents and coaches in the game. As a 14 year veteran, Vanessa  has developed these meaningful relationships, and is able to leverage these relationships to help collegiate athletes to make this sometimes difficult transition to becoming a professional athlete. This Combine will give players the opportunity to showcase their talents to both WNBA and European agents and coaches.

DR. NICOLE WILLIAMS is an emergency physician, ultrasound and sports medicine enthusiast, and former professional basketball player. Dr. Williams completed her emergency medicine residency in NYC at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, continued her education at Georgetown University and is now on the sidelines at George Washington University training to become a team physician. She is passionate about integrative health, wellness, and women's sports. 

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Download the episode's key takeaways here.

This episode was produced by Global Thinking Foundation USA and Hangar Studios.

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View Transcript

Mary: [00:00:00] Hello, everyone. Welcome back to Your World, Your Money's "Sports: New Era of Wellness" special series. In the wake of the Tokyo Olympics and the powerful truths athletes have been speaking, today we sit down with Vanessa Gidden and Dr. Nicole Williams. Talking truth, resiliency, mental health, and money.

 

Lauren and Nolan dive in with Vanessa and Nicole and talk about mental health and the depths therein when we take a real, genuine holistic view of an athlete and a person. We will sprinkle into this conversation how money is both stressful itself and a conversation that defines all other choices and actions, especially for young people dedicating their lives to their athletic passion. Let's hand this over to Lauren and Nolan, who both jump right in with our guests, Vanessa and Nicole.

Mary: [00:01:34] Vanessa Gidden is the founder of two organizations and a professional athlete. She has competed at the highest level for over 14 years. Yep. 14 years. Playing in the WNBA and the Euro League. She founded Athletes 4 Athletes, which works to reduce the stigma attached to player agent relationships and help nurture strong player agent relationships that truly benefit both parties.

 

Dr. Williams is an emergency physician, sports medicine enthusiast, and former professional basketball player. Dr. Williams is now on the sidelines at George Washington University, training to become a team physician. She is passionate about integrative health, wellness, and women's sports.

 

Lauren: [00:02:32] Vanessa, Nikki, it's so amazing having you both with us today. We would love for you to kick us off by telling us more about yourselves and what you're up to, what you do. What are your jobs, your field, and your specialties?

 

Vanessa: [00:02:44] I'm Vanessa Gidden. I was born and raised in Jamaica. But, um, I came to the United States at age 10 and I started playing basketball, which has kind of led me into most of my career path.

I went from Stanford high school. Graduated, went to Hofstra University where I met Nicole, uh, who was a teammate of mine there from Hofstra. I had a chance to play in the WNBA for the Connecticut Suns and the Minnesota Lynx. And I have played for the last 14 years, professionally, in Europe. Played in countries like Turkey, Finland, Romania, Italy as well, Spain and Poland, um, Gola. Um, I've played basically in most of the countries that you hear about with basketball, and I've also had a chance to go back and play for the Jamaican national team to represent my birth country. So, I started two companies. One is Velez Hoops to help younger players get to college and my other organization, which I just started, is to foster the growth of professional athletes both on and off the court, helping them with their agents, helping them with mental health, finance... just educating them on a lot of the ins and outs of professional sports and just being a support system for them in their career.

 

Nolan: [00:04:11] That's incredible. And yeah, I'm so excited for us to jump into talk about that venture, too. This is Athletes 4 Athletes, right?

 

Vanessa: [00:04:18] Yeah. Mmhmm.

 

Nolan: [00:04:19] That sounds incredible. I'm so excited to learn more about that. So, Nikki, tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey. Your basketball journey and what led you to your current career?

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:04:32] Sure. Thank you for inviting me to join this afternoon. I am Dr. Nikki Williams. I'm an emergency medicine physician. Currently pursuing a sports medicine fellowship at George Washington University, where I will be very excited to be back on the sidelines. I actually met Vanessa in 2005 where she was my recruiting host at Hofstra University.

We played there collegiately together and then, uh, I played in Israel where we actually played against each other before getting into medical school. I completed my medical education in Philadelphia. My emergency medicine residency training in Queens, New York. And I've now been in Washington DC for the last two years.

Nolan: [00:05:04] I have a follow-up to that, which is, did you know when you entered medical school, did you know that remaining involved in basketball was going to be an important part of your career? Or did that develop over time?

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:05:15] Well, I think I always knew basketball and women's sports would be part of my career. I just wasn't sure how or what form that would take. Health nutrition and general wellness has always been important to me and just really important to promote. Uh, however, when I was in medical school, there were many options to getting to sports medicine and emergency medicine had that thrill, that game day feel, where you really got to be there for people in critical moments. At the same time, I've always wanted to help other athletes by promoting both physical or just really mental fitness in ways I wish I had known sooner.

So, this year will be a big change for me, really focused on preventative medicine. And this is something I've always been very excited about.

 

Lauren: [00:05:47] Very cool. Another follow-up question actually, really quickly. For the mental health piece and the mental health side, when I think of an athletic trainer, especially as a former athlete when I worked with them, it was more physical. They didn't always bring up the mental side of it. And within your profession - and Vanessa, I think you can speak to this too - how have you been able to, or how do you think when you're on the sidelines as an upcoming fellow, how will you be able to intersect the two of the mental and the physical in this community?

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:06:17] Well, my hope is to bring a very holistic approach to the sidelines. There is really no completely predictable approach to providing athlete's care. Each person is unique and really their coping mechanisms are as well. What we know though is that both mental health and physical health are so intimately connected and that there's also a link between physical injury and the onset of mental health issues. As well as the idea that athletes' peak competitive years, especially for elite athletes in college, tend to overlap with a peak age for the risk of the onset of mental disorders, such as depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. So, I'd like to make sure athletes have a safe space with someone who is not interested in the score of the game at all or how their on-field performance is. I hope to be just an advocate and ensure that psychological concerns are screened for, and that they're addressed.

I can tell you from being there myself, it's really a dark and uncomfortable place to speak about mental health issues. But physical injuries are really unpleasant, too. And we treat them, and we bring people back to health. I want that to be part of the conversation.

 

Vanessa: [00:07:13] I'll definitely add to that, because the reason why we, we are so comfortable with having Nicole, a part of Athlete 4 Athlete is because Nicole is not just a doctor, she is a sports medicine doctor, and also an athlete that went through the process of being a player, having all the, all the pressures of being an athlete. And she's also been able to merge those two lives. And I feel like the way that she approaches every project that comes to her, she's approaching it from a personal standpoint.

She's not just looking at an athlete and saying, 'okay, well, the reason why you're not fit is that this, like, she goes deeper. We talk about the body, but she's always making sure that she addresses the mind as well. So that's where I, I'm super happy to have Nicole on the team. She's very valuable to us in what she brings.

 

Nolan: [00:08:14] Yeah, I can definitely see that. I'm curious if we can stay on this topic of mental health for a bit, because I think it's incredibly important. Nikki, as you mentioned, it's incredibly timely. We're recording this just in the midst of the Olympics here when Simone Biles is making headlines for taking a stand for her own mental health. So, I'm, I'm curious what you both think about the current state of the mental health discussion in sports? There's certainly a sense that there's sometimes a stigma for athletes to speak out about it. I'm curious if you sense that and if so, like what should be done to remove those barriers and remove that stigma?

 

Vanessa: [00:08:52] I think that we need to get more comfortable with speaking about it. I don't think that it should be a quote-unquote, just a hot topic for now. It should be a topic of discussion whenever we talk about athletes. Because I think that, especially as pro athletes, a lot of people look at us as public figures of just someone who we can just maybe put all our troubles on. 'Oh my gosh, she had a great game.' But when she has a bad game, it's, 'she's the worst person in the world'. So, you know, I think I was speaking to one of my teammates the other day, former teammates. And I said, man, we grew up in the best ages of sports. Social media was not a factor. It was just like; we go to the game. We either did good or we did bad, but we went home, and nothing followed us. In this day and age, you cannot walk away from the court or the field without it following you home. You know, you can just pick up your phone to make a phone call and there is probably about a hundred Twitters about how you did today.And I think that is something that we constantly need to talk about, and athletes need to get more comfortable, and everyone needs to be comfortable with hearing from the athlete, what they're feeling, and we need to address it.

 

Nolan: [00:10:15] Yeah, Nikki, what are your thoughts in the mental health conversation in sports?

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:10:21] Well, that's a difficult conversation right now. We live in a stigmatized world, whether it's race, gender, or mental health. And we live in a society that basically promotes and looks at pushing through all barriers as really admirable. But the question is what is the cost, right? What is the cost that's associated with winning? We carry this win at all costs attitude, but we often don't see the behind-the-scenes, behind the glamour, uh, alcoholism, depression, suicidality, eating disorders, isolation. So, I think that, you know, as a society being obsessed with the pressure to work at unreasonably high levels all the time, I'm glad to see that more conversation is going on.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:10:56]  However, I wish that it wasn't occurring during moments of crisis for athletes. So right now, it's definitely receiving a lot of attention, especially with Michael Phelps and Simone Biles. But my hope is to continue the conversation, hopefully, a lot sooner with high school and collegiate athletes. In terms of Simone Biles directly, I find it hard to comment as somebody who has never been the best in the world at anything. I think the minimum requirement for comments should be a silver medal. I mean, this is her personal life, her health and her decision. We can have a healthy discussion about this and speculate from our couches, but for somebody to be at the peak of their career and step aside, it means there is a lot more to the story than sport.

So as heartbreaking as it is to watch as an athlete still takes a lot of courage to cheer for your teammates and say that this is probably not going to be good for my life right now. As a physician, I'm just glad she walked away physically healthy.

 

Lauren: [00:11:43] I mean, I don't know if you guys feel this, but as a former athlete, as someone who like left the game for mental health reasons, the fact that this conversation is happening right now feels almost surreal. But Nikki, I also understand what you're saying in a sense where it's like, we also need to spend more of our energy on how did it get to this point more than like, oh, well, thank God it's happening.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:12:06] I agree. I think our humanistic response should be concern. If I have one word to describe looking at that entire scene, watching it live, I would say I'm just concerned. How did it get here? And does she have the resources she needs to continue this journey emotionally? Because we give everything to our sport. And in some ways, we are a commodity. But at the end of the day, what people are looking out for you that have your vested interest truly in mind? And I think we need more of those people in our lives as we embark on these journeys through high school sports, through collegiate sports, you are a commodity. You're giving something to the university. And in return, somebody is getting paid for your service. And I'm just saying it point-blank, college coaches are interested and there are some great ones, but they are interested in winning games.

Performance coaches are interested in your performance and even psychiatrists and psychologists at the sports level are interested in how well you are performing. But it's not all about performance, right? So, I'm curious to see how this conversation continues. It's not just about performance, right? It's about, who's there asking how are you actually doing off of the field off of the court?

 

Lauren: [00:13:18] Yeah. So, for both of you another question. When I think of athletics and - what you're getting to Nikki is - this conversation of physical labor, and I think that it's a culture of mental toughness, grit, perseverance, resilience... that rings through my ears. When coaches would say that 'mental toughness'. And I was like, what does that mean? When you hear that, Vanessa, what does that bring up for you?

 

Vanessa: [00:13:43] Well, thinking about it and what it meant to coaches and college and... It was more so what it meant to them more than what it meant to me at that time. It means: basically, doesn't matter anything that you're going through, you just have to push through it, right? I think that it should actually mean: when you're going through something, be okay with talking about it. Be okay with stepping forward and saying, 'mentally right now, I'm not able to do it'.

But unfortunately, I think the conversation didn't go that route. It was more so pushing through it more so than saying what you're dealing with. I think being mentally tough is actually being able to speak up and put yourself on the line. What athletes are doing now... I saw [athlete] the other day, she chose to opt-out of the Olympics.

 

Vanessa: [00:14:42] Um, because she said, 'right now I'm not mentally ready. You know, 'I'm not mentally ready for that bubble'. 'I cannot see myself, um, being in that state'. I feel like that right there is showing that 'look, I'm going to-' forget about what anyone thinks mental toughness is supposed to be and being more vulnerable, you know?

Um, but yeah, when I'm thinking about a college, uh, athlete, it means man, to push through everything. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what you're going through. You have to be mentally tough and no matter if you, you missed the last shot or right now you're not eating so well, or you're not feeling so good, you still have to go out there and play. That's what it meant. Unfortunately.

 

Lauren: [00:15:29] Vanessa, do you coach?  Did I misinterpret that? But do you do some coaching, mentorship aspects of that? Amazing. So now, as stepping into a, another portion of your career, how can you incorporate or how have you incorporated this conversation that you just shared about mental toughness? Like what are some of the things that you tell your athletes, this new generation that's creating space for us to talk about this in ways that we weren't before?

 

Vanessa: [00:15:55] You know, I, I try to look past the physical capabilities of an athlete. And I would say it's harder coaching an athlete now than it was few years ago. And we say that because we say, 'the athlete before is built differently'. And, um, maybe you would say athletes before are more 'mentally tough', but it's just that I think that we just didn't know that we were able to be more vulnerable. Now as a coach, knowing that I have gone through the experience of being an athlete myself, I try to look past just the physical capabilities and I talk to my athletes. I try to find out more about them than just their physical capabilities of being a player, how high they jump. I want to know why do you feel like you're missing your layups? Why exactly - what's going through your head when you step to the line? Are you clear in your mind enough to be able to take that free throw? Does it bother you that the whole gym stops when you're on that line and this depends on you?

 

Vanessa: [00:17:04] So we try to coach them in a way where those moments will feel like it's a walk in the park because we take all those fears out the way before they actually get to the court.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:17:18] So just to add to what Vanessa said, we must address the athletes as a person first. And this starts very early on, you know, this is a grassroots issue. Coaches need to help athletes basically form their identity as something else. We oftentimes basically make our entire identity through sport, and it leads to just a lack of general awareness of ourselves and really who we are beyond the game. I think we can do a better job at a younger age. We want our athletes to feel empowered by something else other than the sport.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:17:43] We want them to define themselves as good at other things. And part of my mission with mentorship is just getting to that, 'what is next in life?' And 'what else really gets you fired up?' And 'what really gets you excited off the court?' Because there really has to be something else, especially in women's sports. Chances are you will not be making your entire livelihood from your athletic abilities. Now there'll be amazing athletes who do. And we should certainly support that, but we should also be preparing for our next career earlier on. We spend a whole lot of time giving to the sport. It's a craft that takes so much energy, so much time.

So, we need some other great advisors in our lives to pull our energy into other sustainable options and really diversify our interests.

 

Nolan: [00:18:19] To build on that. I mean, one topic we love to talk about here on the podcast is financial security, financial independence. And I'm curious what both of you think the conversation in professional athletics is from your experience from who you've talked to, how much do you think is being aware of your future financial security on the mind of professional athletes in general? Or do you think sometimes there's a tendency to shy away from asking those hard questions and, you know, chase the dream of making it successful as making the big money, I guess?

Vanessa: [00:18:56] Wow. That's a great question. So, to be honest, when I first started my career, I was chasing the dream. I was like, man, this is amazing. But in the same token, When I went to Hofstra University, I didn't go to Hofstra because they were the best basketball program. I went to Hofstra because they have the best business school. And I had to constantly remind myself why I started playing basketball. When I started playing basketball as a young kid, the reason why my mom invested in AU is because my high school coach told my mom, ''if she plays AU-' which is amateur basketball, where you get an opportunity to get a full scholarship...

 

Vanessa: [00:19:42] So my mom heard 'full scholarships, so I don't have to pay for college'? And that's what I heard too. So, I always go back to that. That's the reason why I started playing basketball. And that was the main reason why I went to college to try to get a degree. When you get to the professional level, you somewhat lose sight of that because now you're getting paid to play the sport.

Unfortunately, as a female athlete, you still have to think about the next stage of your career beyond basketball. So that's why I said, I constantly had to remind myself that it does not stop with the professional ball. And while I was playing, I started two companies. And that's the reason why, because I said, 'okay, well, I need to make sure that I have something here besides basketball'.

 

Vanessa: [00:20:38] And I had my brother, sister-in-law constantly pounding in my head, 'save, save, save. Invest invest, invest.' But some athletes do not have that. And after the sport, it's a very, very scary world. Because as women basketball players, I'm sorry to tell you guys, we don't get paid enough to retire on basketball salary. It’s just not, that's just the, you know, we're not LeBron James or Michael Jordan. Like even if you are, even if you are the Diana Taurasi's of the world and the Candance Parkers of the world, you're still going to have to retire and hang those shoes up one day. And you're not going to be able to lay on a beach.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:21:23] So I agree with that. The chances are, if you play our sport, women's basketball, this will not be your only career. And even in the most elite of players, your time as an athlete comes to an end. So, the question is, can you sustain your lifestyle within whatever comes next with what you've done before? And you know, this is not unknown to the universities. This is not unknown to coaches, and it really shouldn't be unknown as a player. You should be educated about this, that your scholarship is worth so much. You can take advantage of it in so many different ways. Get a degree with really meaningful value. Start building that road map. With and without support. Your five-year ten-year 20-year plan. With something else that would excite you.

Now, I'm not saying to not get every second of playing time you can out of your body. I certainly did. And though it was only one year of a professional stint for me, it's really propelled my career professionally in many other ways. But I do think we can start that conversation earlier. We can build roadmaps earlier and we can really, like I said, just diversify our interests and find things that really excite us beyond the sport.

 

Vanessa: [00:22:18] If I might add to that, I would say as a professional athlete, that's played the game for 14 years, I think the biggest value of my career is I would- I wouldn't say the money that I make playing this sport. But the networking that I gained around the sport. So, playing at the professional level does help you, but you should not look at it as just a box. It's just a way for you to figure out the next thing and to align your chips, if you may say.

 

Nolan: [00:22:54] One thing I wanted to make space for here is you both had this incredible experience of being able to play abroad. And I'm really curious what kind of influence that had on your life, on your career goals, on how you saw this perspective of post-athletic career and life. What was playing abroad like for you and what lessons do you take away from it?

 

Vanessa: [00:23:18] I would say, man, I took, I took a lot from my experience abroad. Experience in different cultures, seeing the way that people live abroad and seeing that everything is not materialistic. I think that the US is kind of like, in a box and I love this country and, you know... but I feel like seeing so many different ways of living, you realize that you really don't need a lot to live.

You can survive on minimal things. And it makes me just even more grateful for being a US citizen because when I go abroad and I see how people live, they're super happy and maybe they don't have as much. So, I think that that experience being abroad definitely.... Yeah, affected me in that way and just opened me up to different cultures. And I would definitely wouldn't trade that for anything.

 

Nolan: [00:24:20] Nikki. What was your experience?

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:24:22] So my experience was with Vanessa. We actually played on rival teams in Israel. I definitely took an elbow to the face at least once from her. Uh, she may have selective memory. So going abroad is just an interesting experience in many ways. It's very humbling. Especially in Israel. We were essentially playing at a time where there was continued conflict within Gaza and games were postponed. There are actually times where we heard sirens go off and we knew we were expected to take shelter and that just really put sports in perspective. So, in general, though, the entire experience was a bucket list item for me to really go overseas and be amongst the different cultures, whilst running around playing a sport and getting paid to do it. It's just an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At the same time, it was very eye-opening from a lifestyle perspective. It was always the dream to play professionally, but I didn't really know what that actually looked like once you got there.

So, you signed your first contract. It's extremely exciting. But then you get over there and you realize there are so many challenges and often times not the best resources to really help you navigate. And you're not protected with the support structure that normally watches over you during collegiate sports

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:25:22] I remember taping my teammate's ankles in a small gym in Netanya. And I was wondering, 'is this actually the dream?' So, while I wouldn't take the experience back for anything, I'm really hopeful that Athlete 4 Athletes and other advocacy groups will really help be a tool for other athletes and provide resources so that women can not only have very fulfilling careers overseas but also have great support.

Lauren: [00:25:41] And from your perspective, what are some of the things that we can do to make it better?

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:25:45] So, I think you need an advocate. You don't need an agent. You need somebody educated in the process, right? That's why we are an athletic commodity and people are - maybe not intentionally - but using us to achieve their income and achieve their goals. There are trained individuals, whether they are lawyers, whether they are parents, whether they are mentors, that have experienced that we need to leverage. And so, I think, again, I'm not coming back to Vanessa's company, but I think it is very important for people to invest in these types of resources. And I'm giving my time to that right now.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:26:19] I know Vanessa is as well, and this has nothing to do with the financial gain that we are going to see from this. This has to do with, 'I was there. I want to help others navigate this better than I did, and hopefully have less difficulty.' So, I think that's one of the things. The second thing is really from the NCAA level and collegiate level, again, there has to change. There has to be fundamental changes made for contract negotiation for, you know, actual networking skills that are beyond just showing up, because you were told to at an athletic networking event. You have to learn these skills. They have to be emphasized. And that means taking time away sometimes from a sport

Lauren: [00:26:57] At times, I think that's one of the hardest things to tell an athlete who is thick into their sport. Like athletes that are super passionate about their sport, if they have to be out because of an injury, out because of any sense, taking time away, what that looks like to, and from your teammates... so it's interesting that you bring that, that, that is a solution.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:27:16] Yeah. I was going to say to that point, it's just so difficult for athletes to allocate time beyond their sport. And I think that has to be mandated from the coaching level or, or from the organizational level. You know, there's so much time pressure that is involved. You basically even feel disappointed in yourself and you're not devoting every single moment to the sport.

And to give an example of that. Where I was at college, I remember having surgeries where I was trying to sneak in just one more workout before the surgery. Immediately wondering after the surgery, when I could play next. You know, I wish I knew what I know now. My older self has a lot to say to my younger self in terms of guidance, but we need to help create that time for athletes.

 

Lauren: [00:27:52] That's where there's just so much association to worth and productivity that in this conversation, we're looking at through the lens of basketball and sports. But in so many other avenues of life, it is becoming so clear that-

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:28:06] We celebrate grinding, right?

 

Lauren: [00:28:07] Mental toughness.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:28:08] We celebrate grinding as a culture. It's, it's kind of an American ideal in a way. And certainly what sports.

 

Nolan: [00:28:15] It's ingrained to us from a pretty early age, I think. But all that talk about finding the right kind of advocate for athletes sets me up for what I was excited to ask Vanessa is tell us about Athlete 4 Athletes, your journey, your vision for it, what your experience has been so far?

 

Vanessa: [00:28:33] Wow. So that kind of lead me into a story I was going to tell you guys. So, the reason why I started Athlete 4 Athletes and it's because I went through these pitfalls, I went through these mistakes in my first two years of playing. I went through three different agents. I didn't know how to figure it out.

I remember after my rookie year in Turkey, my agent basically told me to 'go to Turkey and do your job. Just do what you need to do for this team. And we're going to find you a good job next year.' So here we go, doing Turkey. I was at MVP, Italy, 25 and 15, and I think it was about October. And the same agent told me, 'I think you need to try to find a new job at home cause we were not going to even find you a job.'

So, I said, 'uh, wow. Okay. I have to figure it out.' So that's, in other words, just telling me to quit basketball. And what I did was, I moved on to another agent who was able to find me a situation. That agent was also wasn't good for me because he was putting me into a bad situation. He was worried about the money.

 

Vanessa: [00:29:50] So I said, okay, man, I'm in Romania at this time. And I remember talking to my teammate at the time, Christian Rasmussen, and she said, "V, sit down, I'm going to help you out". And basically, she told me exactly what I needed to do. Put me in the right direction on the agent's side. I need to have represented me.

I wasn't even sure if I was... In myself, I wasn't even confident enough that I was supposed to be represented by another agent because I had felt so small by these last two that didn't make me feel good about myself. Even though I was doing my job, it's just that they can do their job well enough. So, they made me feel like I wasn't worthy of a better position.

So long story short, I switched to my agent that I've been with for the last, uh, 13 years. And I went from being at the bottom of my career to playing in Euro league and my career took off. And I said, wow. What a difference is I make, but not only that in, in having some of the best agents, you still don't have the right support.

 

Vanessa: [00:31:03] So I remember calling up Nicole and saying like, "I'm in Spain and my knee hurts. I don't know what to do, and nobody can figure it out over here. I need help." You know? And I know she's a doctor. So, she got on the phone with me and told me exactly what I needed to do. And suddenly, my knee starts feeling better.

I was reaching out to so many different resources. I, you know, I need to figure out my finance, I'm getting a contract, but I don't know how to save. It's funny because I had a support system from my brother and my sister-in-law who was in finance and they said, all right, let's sit down. Set up an account for you. And this is where you're going to put, allocate your money. You know, I didn't know that I needed to do all of this. And the reason why I created Athlete 4 Athletes is because they don't know. The athletes now, they have so many needs that come up and they're like lost. I don't want another athlete to go through my mistakes, my pitfalls.

 

Vanessa: [00:32:05] And I created an Athlete 4 Athletes because I wanted to make sure that we created a support system to navigate these athletes, to Nicole, to our financial advisors. We were planning on having mental session while they're overseas, because being in another country, it could weigh on you. I mean, I remember being in Turkey my first year.

I did not get off - at the time - Skype. That shows how old I am, but, uh, you know, I just stayed in my room. I didn't understand the language. I was just feeling so alone, and I feel like just being able to hold the athletes together and just making sure that they're okay and they know that we're there for them, it will give them an outlet outside of just their agent who is really just there to find you a job. They don't do anything else. There's not many agents that do much else than find you a job and then, okay... Yeah, while you're over there, they might check on you and they might come to your game and you know, all that stuff, but the resources and even the agents that are on our team, they are so happy that we are being a support system for their players because, um, it's difficult.

You know, one of our first players is Abbie Wolf-

 

Lauren: [00:33:27] Love her.

 

Vanessa: [00:33:29] She's amazing. You know, she was one of our first signees. She signed her first contract in Spain, and she signed to go back to Barcelona this year. We just finished our combine. We had about 15 players in there and we're currently working on getting, not all of them signed, but their agents, we have another player that's signed to go to Egypt... Was Mary Julian we have so many.

And we're reaching out so much in trying to do, do everything we can for these players, because I know that I've been there, and I've done that. And I just want to just be a support system for the athletes. Uh, yeah, I just, I feel like I'm talking to myself. I just want to run it, write it all down for you guys, but that's, that's kind of a nutshell of what we do.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:34:15] Well, so I can summarize what Vanessa said as well. She came to me and said, "Listen. Do you remember when you had to go overseas, but had no idea what you were doing? No idea how to obtain an agent, or do you remember when I would text message you different, uh, MRI reports or CT scan reports and ask you if you could help interpret them in English?"

"You know, I want to make this better, or I want to make it better for female athletes, allow them to just focus on their sport and really have trusted resources to help streamline their ability to become a professional athlete." And then you have a network of support behind you in the United States, as you embark on that journey.

 

Lauren: [00:34:46] So as our closing question, because we're beginning to wind down, I want to ask you both what are steps that everyone can take to fight for better changes in parity, financial literacy and overall health?

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:34:59] Well, that's certainly a question with multiple layers. I will try to give it a shot. So, mental health in general over the last decade is becoming much more widely recognized. And we certainly don't want to forget about that. There is such an intimate connection between performance, mental health, physical health, and that's really being better understood. And that's the first step. Recognizing it and having open conversations. So that's number one. However, oftentimes, like we had mentioned with Simone Biles, they're happening during times of crisis when they should be started and encouraged by individuals, whether it's mentors or professionals who have the means to support these athletes really early on in their career.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:35:33] So number two is really having trusted advisors and starting that conversation earlier. Number three on the grassroots level, we can promote the whole person and not just the athlete. It's such a younger age, let's diversify, let's get our athletes exposed and excited about other things. And then on a bigger scale, what we can do now from the university level is really have professionals connected directly to the teams. It needs to be easy for athletes to take the steps towards help, knowing that they're supported, not trying to navigate things alone and just making that direct connection. And I do think that comes in at the resource level by having a universities and coaches and teams really invest in that type of care.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:36:11] Lastly on an everyday level, we can be kinder to one another. You know, the same mental health issues athletes face, the rest of the world faces. Athletes just happen to be magnified at particularly vulnerable times on really big stages like the Olympics. I think we can do a better job at really just, uh, kindness, you know, asking people how they're doing, offering help. And then also just being open to it and less of the couch critic. So, I think it goes, you know, one having an open conversation, two mentorships, three promoting the person and not just the athlete much before high school. Four, professional connection to resources that are easy and streamlined, and five kindness and support, not critique.

 

Vanessa: [00:36:53] I think the conversations need to become a habit. Not just a, it's not a fad. It's not something that you just talk about now and then forget about it. It's supposed to be a thing that we incorporate in -not just sports, in our regular lives. Too many people are falling short of it. And I think that there needs to be a lot of help for not just athletes that are in sports, athletes transitioning out of sports. And I think that financial literacy early, and I think - putting those two together, financial literacy and mental health. Not being financially stable leads to a lot of mental health insecurities and it piles on. And, you know, so we definitely have to make sure that we educate our young athletes from college, from even before that, about what finances and then, you know, have them have the conversation starts from there and hopefully lead up to their professional careers.

And by then money means they understand the value of money now, save it, and all of this. And then obviously the mental health part is something that needs to be an ongoing conversation. I definitely agree with everything that Nikki says. And her story is very touching. Definitely. We'll probably have to have another show for that.

Vanessa: [00:38:20] Um, but I'm just happy to get the opportunity to speak to you guys and, and have Nikki with us because, uh, she's definitely helped our organization, and yeah.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:38:32] I'll leave one last comment. If you don't mind, guys, the mental health parity will continue to be a discussion. And just remember somebody has to pay for it. And so, at the end of the day, imagine if we spent even a fraction of what we spent on physical performance on mental health. So that's a much bigger societal issue but imagine if we paid psychologists the same as we paid trainers. But imagine if that was an emphasis on a bigger level. So, I think there are multiple different avenues to discuss from a personal, societal, collegiate level.

But I do think that at the end of the day, mental health is a cost. So, somebody, whether it's institutional or not, has to be willing to make that a priority for our athletes. And then remember that our athletes are just people. Anything that the athlete is experiencing, maybe at a greater peak in their life at a greater peak in their career, everyone else is also experiencing. So, athletes have a platform to maybe do something more about it, but depression and anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol abuse, opioid abuse, all of these things are issues amongst different age groups. We have a platform to talk about it, to make it important and to put, you know, familiar faces in front of a large audience.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:39:52] And I think we, we owe it to start having that conversation so that more people can be transparently seeing that this is a change in sport, and it can be a change just generally speaking.

 

Nolan: [00:40:04] I think that's exactly right. And it's an important conversation that certainly needs to continue. And I think everyone needs to think hard about it. Fans included, um, about how we can be supportive of the structures to actually aid athletes and, and find the, like you said earlier, the humanistic approach to treat them as their best selves and not just as, you know, just an athlete they're to put up points.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:40:33] They're just magnified at vulnerable times that the whole world is watching. It's not that other people aren't going through them. The whole world is going through it. They just are on the stage and then they are victim to the critique, and we can do better. I think we can do better.

 

Vanessa: [00:40:49] I think, I think social media definitely. We need to, we need to get ahold of those platforms and try to support the athletes more. Because it's, like I said, it's not easy going onto social media these days, if you're an athlete. I remember when I was playing, I kind of, I just had my social media public since I've, my career has kind of wind down. But on the peak of my career, I had a private account because I just didn't want to let people into my life. I would rather not hear anything. Not hear the good and not hear the bad because it's draining.

It does take a lot from you mentally and that transfers to your physical performance. And we, we definitely need to, as fans and as people around the sport, we have to support the athletes.

 

Lauren: [00:41:42] Thank you guys so much.

 

Nolan: [00:41:45] Yeah. What an incredible conversation.

 

Lauren: [00:41:47] Yes, absolutely.

 

Vanessa: [00:41:51] Thank you for having us.

 

Nicole (Nikki): [00:41:52] Thanks so much for having us on today.

 

Mary: [00:41:54] Thanks so much for joining us in these game-changing conversations. Was that a pun? Not really. Don't worry. We're not making cheesy puns over here. Not yet. We hope these conversations are truly speaking to you or someone in your life that you love. We will continue talking all things, athletics, money, mental health, and parity next week.

So, we'll chat soon and until then stay safe everybody.