Last summer, Breia Mayes was gearing up for her senior year of cross-country at Selinsgrove by training with 2021 graduate Zoe Tomko, who was preparing for her freshman season at King’s College.
“We’d wake up at 5 a.m. and run every day, and we did hills every day,” Mayes said. “Then we’d go to work, and I’d swim after work. My days and weeks were always so busy.”
The pair, who worked together, went on vacation together, but then things took a wrong turn for Mayes.
“We went to the beach together, and I did a long run — 11 miles at 7:11 pace,” Mayes said. “When I stopped, I just couldn’t walk anymore. I couldn’t put any pressure on one leg.”
Mayes had a femoral stress fracture, and was forced to miss almost all of cross-country season. Then as she ramped up for track and field season in the spring, she had a stress fracture in her tibia.
“I was definitely really sad and angry, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have another stress fracture. Why is this happening to me?’” said Mayes, who will run at Millersville in the fall. “I just had to accept it and move on. I didn’t want to dwell on it, because I knew that would make me even more sad. I had to focus on the present, and what I can control. It’s hard, though.”
Injuries — especially ones that force an athlete out of competition — can be big triggers behind mental issues.
“For a lot of student-athletes, their identity is so wrapped up in their sport,” Susquehanna strength and conditioning coach David Kitchen said. “This is something they’ve been doing at a high level for a long time, so if there’s an injury, there is the possibility they can spiral into depression, and identity-related issues.”
Recent Mount Carmel graduate Mia Chapman experienced one of her highest moments athletically when she helped the Red Tornadoes win the state basketball title as a junior. However, she tore her ACL in the win, which kept her out of track season in the spring.
“It was a very long process, and very challenging physically and mentally,” Chapman said of her physical therapy. “Not being able to compete in sports — especially when we just got blocked out by COVID and then were able to come back — was very taxing on me mentally.”
Chapman, who will play soccer at East Stroudsburg in the fall, said there’s still lingering concern when she takes the field.
“I still get nervous going out there,” Chapman said. “My first season in college I have to wear my brace again. ... It was a long process. I know I came back quicker than most from a (torn) ACL, but it felt like forever.”
Even though being injured is a challenge, it can turn out to be a positive experience.
“I went from playing four sports to doing nothing,” Chapman said. “It was a quick change, but it taught me a lot of lessons, which I’m really grateful for.”
To overcome a challenge and receive benefits from the process, an athlete needs to have the right tools, which is something Kitchen tries to make sure all River Hawks athletes have.
“You don’t wait to get your oil changed until your car breaks down, and that’s how we can look at mental health,” Kitchen said. “We want to provide the tools before things happen.”
So Kitchen teaches some techniques to strengthen mental well-being, while he works with the student-athletes on the more traditional aspects of strength and conditioning.
“We’re doing things like teaching mindfulness and grounding techniques, breathing, yoga,” Kitchen said. “Proactivity is key to it all.”
While it was difficult at times, Mayes was also able to make the most of her senior year, despite not being able to compete at the level or the amount she planned.
“What I realized in the past year or two after being injured so many times is running is not everything,” Mayes said. “I used to prioritize running above everything else. I realized I can’t do that. It’s important, but I also started focusing more on my schoolwork, building friendships and having fun during my senior year.”
Mayes said there were a couple of keys to changing her mindset. The first was focusing on what she could control.
“If you can’t do the sport or thing that you love, my advice is to focus on the positives and try to do other things,” Mayes said. “Taking that time off from running, being in the present and living life, really opened up a whole new world. I have a lot more friends now, because it’s not just the close-knit group of running friends. I go out more. I do a lot more than I did because I’m not just focused on running. I expanded my view.”
The second — one that Chapman also said was important — was still attending practices to be a part of the team, just in a different way.
“I definitely kept my head in a good place,” Mayes said. “I was like, ‘Yes, it is my senior season. Yes, I’m sad I can’t race. But I was able to be happy to be with my teammates and cheer them on.’ Seeing everyone race, you definitely miss that feeling.
“I would ride my bike with the runners at practice. I biked like crazy. I went 20 miles one day. It ranged from 10-20 miles to keep my endurance up.”
With the right tools — and practicing them, like any other skill — even an injury can turn into a positive experience, or at the least something that doesn’t cause a mental health crisis.
“Those injuries made me almost evolve,” Mayes said. “My injuries made me grow as a person. I don’t think I would be the person I am now if I didn’t get injured. So they were a good thing, but also a bad thing.”