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Mental Health in Sports, Part 2: Q&A with Former Mizzou Hoops grad assistant Nafis Ricks

In Part 2 of her series on mental health, Karen Steger sits down with Nafis Ricks to talk about his mental health journey and what he’s doing to impact the lives of the Black community.

Courtesy of Nafis Ricks

A focus on mental health in sports has come to the forefront the last couple years, as both professional and collegiate athletes are starting to speak out about their struggles with mental health. In the first of the two-part series, I dove into the sports psychology arena and looked at athletic identity, mental health, and imposter syndrome. You can read it here. In part two, I’m sharing a Q&A I did about these topics, as well as a few others, with former Mizzou Basketball graduate assistant, Nafis Ricks.

Note: We recorded this Zoom conversation twice, as my transcription app didn’t pick up the conversation the first time around, so this is the second of our conversation. Much thanks to Nafis Ricks for the time.

Karen Steger: Thank you so much for meeting with me to talk about this topic. I know it’s been a long time coming. Can you tell the readers about your personal mental health journey and how Coach Martin helped you in this process?

Nafis Ricks: I had a breakdown, a major, major breakdown (in college while at Missouri State) where I felt like my skills were...I wasn’t working hard, I didn’t know how to work hard; in practice, my habits was real bad, everything I was doing. I had so much stuff going on at home as far as my brother being murdered when I was young, my mom and dad not together, as well as my cousin being murdered in junior college a year before I’ve got to Missouri State. So that took a toll on me and I just didn’t know how to express myself. But when I had that breakdown to my assistant coach, Coach (Marco) Harris, the next day I went to Coach Martin’s office just to tell him what was going on and I was filling him in on what really led me to go in his office. Coach Martin encouraged me to really be vulnerable enough to come speak to him.

I didn’t pick a coach during my recruitment process to just coach me on a basketball court. I really picked the coach that was gonna coach me on my life, so he (Coach Martin) stuck to his word and, you know, I felt comfortable with just having a guy from East St Louis from similar environments like Philadelphia, that I related to and that I felt comfortable asking for help and not feeling judged. Based on his help, I knew I needed to pull through, so he’s definitely was an inspiration, and man, he definitely found me the help that I needed and got me to psychology to help me, you know, stay motivated and everything like that and continue my career on and off the floor.

KS: What did you find out by going to a psychologist? How do you think this helped you in your life?

NR: I would say my personal experience of being diagnosed with three mental illnesses — PTSD, anxiety, and depression — has led me to this profession of working with athletes. Me having my personal experience of being a former division one athlete, I understand that everything, in my opinion, starts with mental before it’s physical, and you have to be in the right state of mind to perform at a high level. And if that’s not addressed, I think that can bleed into other areas where you can either lose focus or you can move to fall in love with the game or whatever you do. I think your behavior changes if you don’t deal with those intricacies of your life.

KS: How did playing for Coach Martin previously and having him help you so much in your past help you connect with the players while serving as a grad assistant at Mizzou?

NR: I think for me, using my personal experience of dealing with Coach for two years and he brought me back and gave me the opportunity to be a graduate assistant, it showed a lot about who he was as a person. He let me come in and impact the program as much as I could with my personal experience. I could just be myself and be vulnerable enough so guys could get the most they can out of their situation.

And being that I played for Coach Martin, I knew the expectations from the practices, and what he expects day in and day out. Because I believed in his mission and vision to, you know, pour into guys and stuff like that, I shared my personal experiences, and with me doing that, I think it became apparent that they saw me as a person and not like as a coach or anything. They saw me as somebody who could really understand where they came from, on and off the floor. I just gave them a little advice that they can carry with them, way beyond sports.

KS: Moving on from your work with Mizzou Basketball, tell me a little bit about Collaboration Management, the LLC you started several years ago, which works to, “reconstruct the narrative around mental health and the African American male by providing tools through speaking engagements and seminars.” How did it get started? And how did your time studying and working at Mizzou help you narrow your focus for what you wanted it to be?

NR: At first, it was more of just putting some info out there geared towards just giving parents and athletes information about the business of sports, and it kind of morphed into like a mental health type thing where I will share my personal experience, along with others’ personal experience, that were across the spectrum of sports.

Being a graduate assistant, it kind of helped mold me into wanting to become a psychologist one day. I had to shut it down (the company) for about two years just because of the NCAA; they didn’t want that to interfere with eligibility, but it (the lay off) gave me a clear vision on what I needed to do to kind of narrow my perspective on what I wanted to do after basketball and in coaching.

Realizing that I want to become a psychologist one day, it helped me load that page (Collaboration Management) into collaborating with many businesses to show what mental health is and not only to athletes. Administration, too. I looked at how we address mental health and what kinds of preventive measures we have. This is not just about sports; it’s about the well being of people. So now, it’s more geared towards mental health and to help athletes navigating spaces that they might feel uncomfortable about to break the stigma.

KS: I see on social media that you’ve been doing some speaking engagements yourself and holding zoom events. Tell me a bit more about that, and how it came about.

NR: When the article (in PowerMizzou, linked below) came out about me being vulnerable about my mental health and about my breakdown in college, I got a lot of responses. It was people that I didn’t know were inboxing me about my personal story, like they felt the same way. So I wanted to create a space for Black men and Black boys where they can express themselves and didn’t feel like they didn’t have a place to talk about their struggles.

So, what I do is, I have some friends that are psychologists and therapists, or people that I don’t even know, reach out so that we kind of talk about topics that you know that we normally don’t talk about as Black men and Black boys. They can talk about their experiences in a safe space, and they are given resources, and they can build a network of people that they can talk to. You don’t have to talk; you can just listen. And you might learn some things and you might feel more compelled the next time we have a zoom to talk about your struggles. I think that breaks the stigma when we feel comfortable of changing the dynamic of what we see in mental health.

KS: Along with your work with your company, you are also in the process of applying to PhD programs in Psychology. Is there a particular area that interests you, such as Sports Psychology and Mental Performance, like Dr. Scotta Morton does for Mizzou Athletics?

NR: With being a former athlete, I don’t want to be put into a box. I really want to work with families and in a clinical setting or counseling. I want to be able to assess, I want to be able to diagnose, and I want to be able to give therapy in different ways. I really have a broad perspective on becoming a psychologist. I think people see me as a former athlete and professional athlete and making this transition, I can bring people along that have the qualities to do this work and do work where I’m just not advocate; I’m serving the community any way I can.

KS: On your social media, you’ve addressed your struggles with imposter syndrome, which is something that I also have dealt with my fair share of. How has this manifested itself as an athlete? In your professional life?

NR: You play sports so people expect you to be a certain way, and that has an extra layer of guilt. As for me, I went through it where I felt like I made it, but I didn’t bring anybody else along so I didn’t feel like I belonged. And when I got into some spaces, I kind of had to code switch to fit. I wasn’t always my authentic self and expressing who I was. I was just trying to fit in where I was accepted, and you don’t want to speak out for fear of being blackballed.

I think imposter syndrome plays a big role the higher you go up, because it’s not that many Black people that look like you in those spaces, so therefore you don’t have relatability. With me getting a PhD, I don’t know a doctor with my name. I know I’m probably the first doctor in my neighborhood. With me being here by myself sometimes, it’s a scary feeling, like, “Man, I’ve made leaps and bounds, but I didn’t take anybody with me, so do I belong in this space?” I think that plays a big part in development. But being secure in myself now, I’m talking to people and encouraging them to meet me at the top. I’m definitely doing my recruiting of doctors.

Talking about mental health in sports has really come to the forefront the past few years. The first pro athlete I really remember reading about that opened up about his struggle with mental health was Kevin Love in The Players Tribune. Who was it for you? How does this help further the mental health discussion?

NR: Royce White was one of the first NBA guys around my era that I recall bringing it up, talking about depression and stuff like that. He was at Iowa State and got dragged to the league and he said that the mental health program (in the NBA) wasn’t up to par. He (was at the point where he) couldn’t fly, and the league was making a big riff about it, so you know it was taboo. Back when I was in college from 2009-2011, I was going through my issues, but never nobody ever knew, so I think it became more prevalent with social media where, you know, people felt compelled to talk about their stories and where athletes are like, “I’m human.”

I think Royce White really opened the doors for people to talk about it, and I think Kevin Love did a great job talking about his problems, as well as DeMar DeRozen and Michael Phelps. I applaud them for having their platform and showcasing their ability to talk about mental health because I think that’s something that we really need to talk about. Not just men, but women too, that we spaces and stuff like that, because they’re just as important as the rest.

KS: Any lasting words for our readers as we wrap up? What can we do?

NR: Understand where people come from. Once we break the status quo of what it is, I think mental health and mental wellness will become a part of our everyday life. Be open to say, I need a day off. I just need a mental health day to get myself squared away, because I think if you’re mentally healthy, then physically it becomes easier for you to process things. If your mental health is right, you can physically work hard to make sure that whatever you want to do, you’re in a good space.

Thank you so much to Nafis Ricks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me for what took much longer than originally anticipated. You can follow Nafis on twitter at @NafisRicks, on instagram at @NafisRicks2, and his company, Collaboration Management on instagram at @collabmgmt. And, if you haven’t read the article that Gabe DeArmond of PowerMizzou did on him back in May that he referenced during our conversation, please check it out here.