Rowan and 463 other high schools and college campuses across the U.S. and Canada are bringing awareness to the mental health of student-athletes with The Hidden Opponent, a nonprofit mental health service designed for student-athletes.
The idea for The Hidden Opponent (THO) started in a 2017 TEDx Talk, by former Division 1 University of Southern California volleyball player, Victoria Browne. In the TedTalk, she detailed her own mental health battle fueled by the pressures she faced as a student-athlete.
“There were times I would feel this knot in my stomach and my skin start to crawl, my hands start to shake and my eyes would well with tears,” Browne said. “Because I was so afraid to play and make a mistake.”
In the same conversation, Browne said, “My freshman season I started and played in every single Pac-12 match and we won the championship.”
Browne explained in her statements two very different ideas of what an “athlete” should look like. She went on to found THO which will be officially coming to Rowan’s campus this fall.
Through their partnership with THO, Rowan will become equipped with mental health resources for both coaches and students through their Coaches and Professionals Program as well as their Campus Captains Program. Each program offers support groups for athletes and coaches to relate with their peers who share the same lifestyle and the mental health struggles that may come along with it.
Rowan softball’s Assistant Coach, Mary Murray, who also serves as the coaches and professionals program coordinator said The Coaches & Professionals Program was started in the Fall of 2022 with “the goal of educating coaches, athletic support staff, and mental health professionals on how to support student-athlete mental health.”
Rowan coaches can access the program’s podcasts, panels, and PDFs through THO’s website.
Murray also detailed the Campus Captains’ Program in which captains receive mental health training and resources to share with their campuses.
“Two of our advisors who are sports psychologists run the training, and it focuses on two aspects: helping support the mental health of those around you, and supporting your own mental health,” Murray said.
More than ever, student-athletes are recognizing the importance of helping their peers. THO’s website states that there are 900 ambassadors, located at over 750 unique college campuses, in all 50 United States and various international locations.
Kaitlyn Riggs is a softball player here at Rowan and serves as the President and Head Campus Captain of Rowan’s Chapter. She first saw her relationship with softball change during her freshman year of college.
“I started having panic attacks. I would be going to practice and start hyperventilating. I don’t want my coach to think I’m late,” Riggs said. “I’m coming from class, but what if she thinks I’m late? What if she thinks I’m lazy?”
Riggs and other athletes sometimes feel like they are forced to compartmentalize their lives. Despite outside stressors, sports come first.
“They always say emotions aside. No emotions, go to practice. Once you put your cleats on that’s what you are doing– it is a physical and mental reminder. They always say be where your feet are,” Riggs said. “You can be where your feet are, but sometimes what you are going through is something that’s going to follow you.”
Riggs was previously a Campus Captain at Stony Brook University before transferring to Rowan in 2021 and was looking to join Rowan’s chapter. Being that it was the chapter’s first year it still needed its foundation established. Riggs was an instrumental part in getting the organization to where it is today. Last fall the organization held its first awareness game to promote the club’s presence on campus.
Julia Cavicchio is a player on Rowan’s field hockey team who is also a part of THO. After her father passed and she struggled with intense grief, maintaining good mental health became more important to her athletic journey and her lifestyle.
“When I was at my lowest point, I could barely get out of bed to brush my teeth or even shower. I just wanted to curl into a ball and shut myself out from the world. This then began causing problems and distance between my family and friends. Then one day I woke up and realized that I was wasting away my life and I know for a fact, that is not what my dad would want. I reached out to a therapist, and began my grieving journey,” said Cavicchio.
The club will meet on the second Monday of every month and focus on a variety of services and topics. The meetings will include information about upcoming events.
“We will be talking about things like positive self-talk, performance anxiety, how to build confidence,” Riggs said. “Students will be able to relate directly to it since we sent out forms to ask them what topics they wish to discuss. We will have Dr. Bullard [Rowan’s Sports Psychologist] come in, and it’ll serve as a safe place for everyone.”
This year the club hopes to include more awareness games, mental health workshops, events, and guest speakers to help students de-stress.
THO has two guest speakers lined up for this year. Zac Clark, a Haddonfield native well-known for his appearance on The Bachelorette has a mental health and addiction foundation called Release Recovery. Because of his work with collegiate athletes in the past, THO is planning for him to speak at Rowan.
In addition to Release Recovery, THO is working with Hilinski’s Hope. The foundation was formed in 2018 after Washington State University’s quarterback, Tyler Hilinski’s suicide. Hilinski’s Hope centered around student-athlete mental health resources including their Care Quarterback Program.
The dates for these guest speakers are tentative, so follow @tho_rowanu on Instagram for more information.
In addition to events, the chapter also works with athletes on a more personal level, whether that is in regards to mental health with the support groups, or just supporting from the stands.
“We are here for you. If you need someone to come to your game, we’ll be at your game. If you need help with your assignment, then we’ll help you with your assignment,” Riggs said. “THO is a different resource for people to come and outlet themselves in a different aspect than going to therapy or just talking about your game. There are people on this campus that do care about you, they see you, they hear you, and they are there for you.”
The club’s first meeting will be Monday, Sept. 25 at 8 p.m. in the Esbjornson Gym’s media room.