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The Story of Kayah Clarke and Student Athlete Mental Health

by: Nick Welsh

News and Sports

On warm summer days in the steel city, the sound of factories humming is never far away. Industrial smoke in the air is a way of life, but still, hoops has a way of bringing sunshine – a path to serenity.  When injuries take basketball away, however, serenity can be elusive.

Kayah Clarke was introduced to basketball at a young age by her dad, Val, in Hamilton. He was one of the most significant factors that kick-started her career that has seen her go from Saturday morning house league to the University of Windsor Lancers. They would always head to the court well before game time to work on Clarke’s skills. It started with her right-hand layup, steadily increasing to more challenging maneuvers. It connected her with her family and was good for her spirit.

Clarke’s passion for basketball deepened when she was playing with her cousins (the “big boys” as she liked to call them). When she lost, she would say to herself, “Hey, I’m kind of upset I lost; let’s go another round.” During high school, she got the call up to the five-on-five family reunion game that happens every July 15. Jaylen, Clarke’s cousin, was her most significant mentor. They went to the same high school, so they practiced before classes, as early as 6 am sometimes. Jaylen also got Clarke involved in the boy’s practices to get extra reps in, working on her shot and driving hard to the basket. She stays in contact with him, always talking basketball and getting pointers.

When it came time to start thinking about the next level, Clarke wasn’t planning to play in Canada at all. Her sights were set on the United States. Her favourite schools were in Florida, just because it was the farthest away from home and that equalled success to her. It meant the game would’ve taken her somewhere – literally.  When it was time to visit the schools, however, Clarke became uneasy. She was nervous and stressed about making the most critical decision of her life up to this point and, at this time, she had already turned down all Canadian schools and was fixated on going to the United States.

A lifeline back into the Canadian hoops scene, however, developed because of a chance encounter three years earlier.  Chantal Valeé, head coach of the University of Windsor Lancers, saw Clarke play in a tournament and spoke to her dad and casually passed him her business card. Val said his daughter wanted to go to the United States but would get in contact if anything changed and, three years later, things had changed.

So there was a bit of fate involved when Clarke’s dad was cleaning out his wallet and he stumbled across the card Valeé had given him three years earlier. His daughter was struggling with a big decision and Windsor was now an option.  It was time for some fatherly advice. “Why don’t you just go and see how it goes,” he offered.  Clarke got to see how Valeé ran her team and she felt a fit.  Clarke redefined what she wanted from school, and a few weeks later, she committed to the University of Windsor.

Clarke’s first season as a Lancer was very promising, averaging 11.5 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.6 APG, and had a respectable shooting accuracy from the field with 39.7 FG% and 29.7 3PT%. A pretty solid stat line for a rookie straight out of high school. Clarke attributed her success to Valeé’s ability to get the best out of her.

“She knows where to put me; she had a knack and understanding of where to put me where I could succeed. And emotionally, it was exhilarating, doing all the news things, in a new environment, doing well, and it was a nice feeling, so overall, it was an exciting year for me.”

During the tail end of that season, however, Clarke came to a crashing halt. In a game at Windsor’s Caesars Palace Coliseum, Clarke drove hard to the basket but she couldn’t make up her mind on whether to pull up or keep going. That indecisiveness made her land awkwardly on her knee and she went down in a heap.  She knew this feeling.  It happened to her before. The MRI confirmed what Clarke suspected, that she had torn her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) – again. The first time came in elementary school.  Clarke underwent surgery a month later that required her to miss a lot of school and endure a long road to recovery.

“Rehabbing my ACL injury was like a marathon,” Clarke said of the exhausting mental and physical toll.

Clarke took it week-by-week and step-by-step. The creation of small goals helped her stay motivated and focused on getting back. Nambogga Sewali, one of the assistant coaches at the time for the women’s basketball team, served as a valuable resource for Clarke throughout the ordeal.

“It was like a rollercoaster helping Clarke through her rehab, it was a long process, but Windsor athletics has some of the best sports trainers and doctors I have ever seen,” Sewali said. “Very few athletes at her stage, I believe, would have had the discipline to see it through. But that’s stubborn Kayah Clarke for you; she was going find a way to get it done!”

The mental cost of the injury effected Clarke too. Mental health is an essential aspect of an athlete’s well-being. According to the Canadian government and Mentalhealth.gov, mental health consists of our emotional, psychological, and social welfare. Mental health affects how we think, feel, and act; it drives our decision to make choices, handle stress, and relate to others. There are many warning signs out there, but they can’t be seen by just looking at someone.

Going into the 2017-2018 season, Clarke’s mental health deteriorated. The biggest challenge was accepting her new role. She went from being a freshman starter to being on the bench. She was still injured, but she felt a lack of value and struggled with her mental health issues, feeling like she had no place on the team.

“It was a huge learning curve for me; I had to learn how to support when not being part of the action. I had to learn how to manage my emotions, that was never a thing for me. Basketball was a form of mental self-care for me, and when I didn’t have that, it was a huge learning curve for me, and it sucked.”

Basketball’s a game of many aspects and dimensions and they don’t all return to a recovering player right away. Rust needs to be shaken off and Clarke had to learn to operate in different ways to make herself useful.

“I felt like a baby learning how to walk again; it was so foreign, especially at that level of play,” she confessed.

Clarke had trouble focusing in school and it became clear to her that she couldn’t limit these issues to the basketball court.  Her rehab was demanding and called her away from class sometimes. This meant she had to try to teach herself in school, making it more challenging to focus and adding to her burden. Sewali was like a big sister, according to Clarke, helping her understand the avenues to improve her mental health and encouraging her to seek out additional assistance.

“My approach with Kayla was very raw, honest, and unorthodox when it came to discussing her mental health. Often times, I would challenge Kayla to reflect on the instructions being given to her because, after her injury, she was kind of naïve, and expecting her performance and output to be the same or even better. That mentally drained her, especially when she did not get the outcome expected in her first few games back,” said Sewali.

Clarke sought out Dr. Todd Loughead, a sport psychology professor at the University of Windsor, to broaden the network of support around her.

“He helped me out a lot, and he was huge for me at that time because I would go see him and talk about how I was feeling. We talked about how the injury was affecting me mentally and I felt like I was dramatic. I felt bouts of anger and sadness, and I thought I was just dramatic. He told me it is normal to feel what I was feeling.”

Dr. Loughead tried to help Clarke see the big picture.  She reminded herself of the good things that were happening. Clarke wrote down the positive things she was accomplishing during her rehab to keep herself on track.

Some things that help mental health for athletes are positive self-talk and imagery skills. It also comes down to having realistic goals upon the athlete’s return, the fear of reinjury, and setting up the athlete for success. This type of injury has an enormous impact on the psyche.

“It’s that fear of re-injury. It is the major worry with this type of injury. The recovery is slow, and because of that, it is frustrating. In team sports, they feel a little isolated from their team, which plays a lot on their psyche, not feeling that connection with the teammates. If we flip the situation, it is important for teammates and coaches to try to include them in team activities and practice and back into the fold,” said Dr. Loughead.

Dr. Loughead pointed to the encouraging new openness to mental health issues in sports and credits initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk as measures that destigmatize and break the barriers.

“We want athletes to ask for help, as someone in my job I can’t read someone’s mind and they have to be willing, and it’s gotten way better in society to talk about,” Dr. Loughead said. “It also depends not just on school and playing, but where the athlete is coming from, sometimes their expectations aren’t the same as they were getting more playing time in high school or were in a different role and that impacts mental health.”

Sewali has moved on from the University of Windsor and now serves as a business administrator at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto.  She still is involved in basketball though and is assistant coach of the women’s basketball team at her new school.  She thinks about the progress made since her days as an athlete.

“It’s crazy to think when I played, mental health wasn’t even a word said in sports. As athletes, regardless of the sport, we go through a lot of similar experiences and being able to identify or having a safe space to talk about it or resources is helpful.”

Mental health is critical in a student-athlete’s life. The school-sport balance isn’t always easy to achieve and then there’s things like injuries that make it more complicated. It is best to seek advice and talk to someone if you feel you’re not mentally well.

Clarke was aware enough to use the supports around her and to find people that she could confide in and she’s better for it today.  She encourages others that are struggling to seek out help to find their path back.  Her story serves as an example of what those conversations can do.




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